In recent months, Canada’s Liberal government took steps towards fulfilling its longstanding campaign promise; the legalization of cannabis products for recreational use.
However, when a bill was finally tabled in April, many were conflicted about whether this piece of legislation adequately protected Canadian citizens – especially young people.
Doctors in particular were alarmed the bill made no mention of the primary psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol, or as it’s more commonly known, THC. THC contributes to the “high” experienced by users of marijuana.
“We said we want the government to continue selling low-potency to youth,” Dr. Christina Grant of the McMaster Children’s Hospital said.
In November 2016, Grant co-wrote a position statement to the Canadian Pediatric Society recommending that should the Liberal government go ahead with legalizing cannabis, it also implement a number of protections to safeguard young-adult users from its more harmful psychological effects.
One of the primary recommendations made in Grant’s position statement was limiting THC content in cannabis (otherwise known as low-potency products) that could be legally sold to youth between the ages of 18 and 25.
“The cannabis today that’s out there that people are using is actually two to four times more potent and the concern is that with increased potency, youth are at increased risk for the harmful effects of cannabis that we already know exist.”
Grant went on to explain that because the brain actually keeps developing well into our 20s, some of the side effects of high THC content are particularly harmful for those in that age range (with the assumption that cannabis use would remain illegal for those under 18).
She described these effects in detail, saying the brain’s frontal cortex is the area most readily impacted by high-potency cannabis. This part of the brain is responsible for planning, organizing and executive functions, she said, and acts differently when the individual is a regular user of cannabis products.
“That’s not happening the same way in a person who uses cannabis regularly. The brains of young people who use cannabis regularly look differently, and they behave differently. They act differently. The brains of those who use cannabis have to overcome something to do the same task as those who don’t,” Grant explained.
THC levels in cannabis products have been growing steadily for several decades. Experts assume that the cannabis being used today is between two and four times more potent than the cannabis being used in the 1960s and ’70s.
One study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information claims that the percentage of THC found in cannabis in the ’90s was approximately four per cent, while today, this percentage has likely gone up to between 10 and 15 per cent. The study also states many iterations of cannabis that are being sold on the market today — such as concentrates, edibles, hashish, hash oil shatter, etc. — contain a higher concentration of THC, and in some, THC is the primary component.
However, when the bill was tabled in April, it was devoid of any mention of THC levels, which came as a surprise to those who’d been pushing for regulation in this area.
Following the presentation of the bill, the Canadian Medical Journal published a follow by the journal’s editor, Dr. Diane Kelsal, about how despite the pleas of many Canadian medical groups, including the Canadian Pediatric Society, the bill still did little in the way of protecting Canada’s young adults from psychological harm.
“Simply put, cannabis should not be used by young people. It is toxic to their cortical neuronal networks, with both functional and structural changes seen in the brains of youth who use cannabis regularly… Although adults are also susceptible to the harmful effects of cannabis, the developing brain is especially sensitive,” Kelsal wrote in the article.
Despite the obvious dissatisfaction with Bill C-45 felt by much of the scientific community, there’s also a significant number portion who acknowledge the effects of THC, and yet still disagree with putting limits on the potency of cannabis sold in legal markets.
“We cannot just artificially regulate or impose restrictive regulations on things that in theory would be ideal. We must harmonize our regulatory efforts with realities that are on the ground already and allow both the safest availability and the ideal availability products that we’d like people to use,” Dr. Benedikt Fischer of the Institute for Mental Health Policy at CAMH said. “At the same time, these must still be products that people will come and obtain in a legal environment.”
He goes on to say that because these products are already being sold widely on the black market, regulators need to be careful not to limit the potency of legal cannabis so much that regular users are no longer interested in those products.
“On the one hand, there’s instinctive desires on many people that the government should regulate or keep cannabis products very restricted and limited to low THC products. In some way, that makes sense. But at the same time, we’re not organizing and legislating cannabis products in a vacuum. The main objective or one of the main objectives of legalization must be to bring people back from illegal markets into legal markets,” Fischer said.
In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first American states to legalize recreational cannabis. Near the end of 2016 however, Colorado state legislators proposed an amendment to limit THC content in marijuana and marijuana products sold in the state to 16 per cent.
The effort to set a THC limit couldn’t get enough support because of the fear that setting a limit would fuel the black market. However, Colorado regulators do require recreational marijuana to be tested for potency at third-party state licensed laboratories for labeling. One lab, CMT Laboratories, reported test results with THC content as high as 28 per cent. Another lab, TEQ Laboratories, reported THC potency levels as high as 32 per cent.
In Canada however, Dr. Lynne Belle-Isle, a research affiliate with the University of Victoria’s Centre for Addictions Research B.C., explained that the proposed bill to legalize cannabis requires input from multiple levels of government.
“I would say that it’s incomplete because this is the federal government’s contribution. The big piece of work is at the provincial level,” Dr. Belle-Isle said.
She adds that this process was always intended because much of the regulation around sales, THC levels, and different iterations of the drug already being sold on the black market, would likely take place at the provincial level.
“It’s definitely a skeleton for the province,” she said. “The task force set the framework for the provinces to work within.” In addition, Dr. Belle-Isle establishes that while the provinces will likely be able to draft their own guidelines on what kinds of cannabis are sold, and place THC limits in certain circumstances should they see fit, she advises against it.
“The whole idea behind legislation is to get away from prohibition,” she said. She also explained that one thing was made clear while Bill C-45 was being drafted. “Whatever you do not regulate will end up on the black market.”
She also commented on the proposal of limiting THC content in cannabis sold to those between the ages of 18 and 25. While cannabis may be harmful to your mental health, she says, a user cannot overdose from cannabis in a lethal way.
“Any kind of psychoactive substance we consume has an effect on our mental health. At what age in our society do we allow people to make decisions for themselves?” she asked.
With much to consider, the Trudeau government charges into a year of discussions leading up to the goal of full legalization by summer 2018.