Buzz kill: Negative health effects of pot must be factor in legalization, experts say

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ABOVE: Minister of Health announces new pot legislation by spring 2017 – Apr 20, 2016

Legalized pot is coming to Canada but that doesn’t make it any better for your health.

Right now only medical marijuana is legal in Canada. The Liberal government is set to introduce pot legalization legislation in 2017. The feds will probably profit from its sale (one report estimates the tax revenue could be $5 billion a year).

READ MORE: Pot at the pharmacy? Here are some ways marijuana could be sold in Canada

“We will introduce legislation in spring 2017 that ensures we keep marijuana out of the hands of children and profits out of the hands of criminals,” Health Minister Jane Philpott told the United Nations General Assembly Wednesday.

“While this plan challenges the status quo in many countries, we are convinced it is the best way to protect our youth while enhancing public safety.”

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The argument is that legalizing marijuana will help control the substance and divert revenue away from criminal organizations. It’s also meant to free up the policing and criminal justice resources that go into enforcing pot prohibitions, and stop giving people criminal records for smoking weed.

But Canadian Public Health Association executive director Ian Culbert worries that if pot becomes legally profitable, its use could become as common as alcohol and tobacco.

“If the corporate interest is too strong, the health and wellbeing of Canadians will suffer as a result; we saw that with tobacco, we see it every day with alcohol. Corporations’ interests are only focused on increasing sales and the public health interest is in managing risk and reducing consumption.”

Pot’s dark side

Short-term, immediate, effects of smoking pot include increased heart rate, light-headedness, drop in blood pressure, heart attack and stroke, according to Health Canada.

Long-term effects mainly target your heart and lungs, with regular smokers prone to experiencing chronic coughs and leaving them at greater risk of lung infections.

READ MORE: Why marijuana laws still apply as Ottawa moves to legalization

Pot use can also trigger psychotic episodes and mental illness such as schizophrenia.

Marijuana can also harm unborn babies, and toxins from marijuana has been found in breast milk. In babies this can result in delayed visual response, shaking, decreased birth weight and a high-pitched cry. As children get older they can have issues with their memory and problem-solving skills, as well as attention, behavioural and emotional issues.

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Marijuana is also getting stronger, with THC levels, the “mind-altering” component of marijuana, having increased by 300 – 400 per cent in past decades, Health Canada says.

And THC can harm adolescent’s developing brains.

Marijuana use also leads to danger on the roads, impairing driver judgement and motor coordination.

WATCH: MADD warns of driving dangers with marijuana legalization

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MADD warns of driving dangers with marijuana legalization – Apr 20, 2016

It’s too early to tell the public health effects of legalizing marijuana.

A report released Monday by the state of Colorado found that pot use among adults has increased since it was legalized in 2012, with about five per cent more adults reporting using marijuana.

READ MORE: Tourist pot use linked to ‘dramatic’ increase in ER visits in Colorado

But at least some of that increase could be because people are just more likely to admit to smoking it now that it’s legal.

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Control, education and prevention

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s (CAMH) 2014 report, Cannabis Policy Framework, urges an evidence-based approach to reducing cannabis harm in Canada.

“Canada’s current system of cannabis control is failing to prevent or reduce the harms associated with cannabis use,” Dr. Jürgen Rehm, director of the Social and Epidemiological Research Department at CAMH, says in the report.

“Based on a thorough review of the evidence, we believe that legalization combined with strict regulation of cannabis is the most effective means of reducing the harms associated with its use.”

WATCH: ‘It’s impossible to arrest our way out’ of drug abuse

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Philpott: ‘It’s impossible to arrest our way out’ of drug abuse – Apr 20, 2016

Canadians already consume a lot of pot, CAMH says, with roughly 10 per cent of Canadians using it every year.

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It’s often seen as a natural, harmless substance, the report says. Meanwhile, many really have no idea what they are consuming regarding potency, quality or source.

READ MORE: If Canada legalizes marijuana, how will cops combat high drivers?

“Cannabis use is associated with a variety of health harms like problems with cognitive and psychomotor functioning, respiratory issues, cannabis dependence and mental illness,” says Dr. Rehm.

“For this reason, any reform of Canada’s system of cannabis control must include a strong focus on prevention and a range of interventions aimed at groups that are at higher risk of harm, including youth and people with a personal or family history of mental illness.”

Control is at the top of CAMH’s recommendations, including “strict regulations that ensure it is not sold like other commodities,” along with a public health focus on prevention and education.

Health Canada has issued nine areas of consideration for the legalization process, but the bulk of them were not really health-related.

Among the health agency’s recommended considerations: evidence of both health benefits and risks, law enforcement issues, and to look at the experience of other places — Colorado, Uruguay — where pot has recently been legalized.