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Letter to the Editor, November 2002

In our Letters to the Editor column for November, we are pleased to publish Kim Hodgson's response to the announcements section of OHPE 281.0, which featured contrasting content on marijuana-related issues (the original bulletin can be viewed here

I found it both interesting and ironic to read about the new online Marijuana Education Guide (developed by The New York Times Newspaper in Education Program with sponsorship from the [U.S.] Office of National Drug Control Policy) on the heels of the release of the Canadian Senate's report on Cannabis: Our Position for Canadian Public Policy (September 2002).

If we are to believe the conclusions of the Senate report, and if their findings and recommendations become widely accepted, Canadian educators and health promoters will have to modify the party line when it comes to preaching the evils of the cannabis plant.

For those who haven't had a chance to peruse this lengthy, but thought-provoking, report, the Senate has undertaken a major review of the literature, heard from experts across Canada and abroad, and came to the following conclusions:

* Cannabis itself is not a cause of other drug use (the committee rejects the "Gateway theory");

* Cannabis itself is not a cause of delinquency and crime;

* Cannabis is not a cause of violence;

* Long-term effects on cognitive functions have not been established in research;

* Dependency caused by cannabis is less severe and less frequent than dependence on other psychotropic substances, including alcohol and tobacco;

* Physical dependency on cannabis is virtually non-existent; and

* Psychological dependency is moderate and is certainly lower than for nicotine or alcohol.

The committee makes the important distinction between "use," "at-risk use," and "excessive use" and concludes that most users are not at-risk insofar as their use is "regulated, irregular and temporary, and rarely beyond 30 years of age" (pg 15 of the Summary Report).

The committee is equally clear, that _any use_ (emphasis mine) by those under age 16 is "at-risk" use (due to the potential effects on cognitive and psychosocial function), and that for those between the ages of 16 and 18 years, heavy use is not necessarily daily use, but use in the morning, alone, or during school activities.

To broadly summarize the findings, the report maintains that when "used in moderation, cannabis in itself poses very little danger to users and to society as a whole, but specific types of use represent risks for users" (pg 42).

The report concludes with a number of proposed public policies, some of which have public health implications: "policies should focus on educating users, detecting and preventing at-risk use and treating excessive use" (pg 44). Finally, the committee recommends that marijuana and its derivatives should be "declassified."

The Senate report stands in striking contrast to the content of the online Marijuana Education Guide. Indeed, a review of the Teacher's Guide and accompanying New York Times articles would seem to perpetuate the very myths that the Senate report seeks to dispel. While no one is arguing that cannabis use by youth (under 16 years of age) is a benign rite of passage, the report does make a compelling case for a harm reduction approach for cannabis use, akin to the stand that public health now take towards alcohol use.

The fate and implications of this courageous report remains to be seen, and even if the Canadian government does act on the report, it will be fascinating to see how the U.S. anti-drug lobby will influence our policies here at home. In the meantime, I would encourage all health professionals to read the Senate Committee's report with an open mind and to weigh the evidence in light of its scientific merit. Each of us has responsibility to remain open to new information and its implications and to not merely perpetuate what may be half-truths and "misinformed opinion" when it comes to the marijuana issue.

Kim Hodgson MHSc.

Health Promotion Specialist

Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Health Unit

Guelph, Ontario

Our introduction to the Letters to the Editor column can be found in the OHPE News section of OHPE 268.0 ( ViewAnnouncements.cfm?ISSUE_ID=268&startrow=1).

Our full submission guidelines are on our website at ebulletin/submit.html.

We look forward to hearing from you.

The Editorial and Management Team of the OHPE