How safe is marijuana? Saskatchewan experts weigh in
On Wednesday, Canada became the second nation in the world to legalize recreational cannabis.
It has prompted many conversations in households across the country including discussions on how safe the drug really is and in a province plagued with some of the highest impaired driving rates in Canada, is it any worse than alcohol?
Dr. Peter Butt, an addictions specialist with the Saskatchewan Health Authority, wanted to dispel one myth related to marijuana for those still a little hazy as to whether or not it’s addictive.
“There’s no question any psychoactive substance can be addictive especially if it stimulates the pleasure area of the brain,” Butt said.
Some would argue, however, that weed isn’t any worse than let’s say whiskey when the two are compared.
According to 2015 data from the federal government, around 77 per cent or 22.7 million Canadians reported consuming alcohol that year. Of that group, 20 per cent exceeded the guideline for chronic risk.
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The stats also showed men were more prone to over drinking than women and young adults, aged 20 to 24, were the age group that most commonly had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.
On the other hand, it was estimated one in every three people who used cannabis would develop a problem with their use. Approximately, one in every 11 (or nine per cent) of those who used would develop an addition.
“If a person started using cannabis regularly as a teenager that rate of addiction from 9 per cent goes to 17 per cent so it almost doubles,” said Dr. Michael Szafron, assistant professor of public health at the University of Saskatchewan.
Szafron also noted those rates were when the drug was illegal, so there could be an increase on the horizon once the drug becomes normalized.
“Nothing is completely risk free,” Butt added.
“When you have a psychoactive substance, the more potent it is and the higher the dose that a person takes, depending upon the route as well – it’s more likely to harm.”
Medical experts said the most at-risk for harm are users that are 25 years old or younger.
“With cannabis use, individuals who happen to be in the age where they are cognitively developing they could be at risk for impeded cognitive development,” Szafron added.
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There is also a growing body of evidence that has linked cannabis to mental health issues, but is alcohol any safer? A study by the Canadian Institute of Health Information showed in 2016 that 77,000 Canadians were hospitalized because of drinking.
Alcohol was the third-leading factor of death and disability globally in 2010, up from sixth in 1990. According to federal data, 40 per cent of all motor-vehicle collisions involve alcohol.
In Saskatchewan since 2007, over 600 people have died and another 4,000 people have been injured as the result of impaired driving collisions where alcohol was a contributing factor.
“Alcohol is the number one intoxicate in our communities,” Saskatoon police Supt. Dave Haye said.
Brian Pfefferle, a criminal defence lawyer in Saskatoon, echoed similar sentiments.
“I have handled a few by drunk driving by marijuana cases but I’ve handled hundreds of drunk driving cases.”
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When it comes to assaults or domestic violence where an intoxicant was involved, Pfefferle said, in his experience, alcohol or other drugs are present but typically not pot.
“I personally don’t believe we’re going to see a big influx of marijuana-related crime. I personally don’t see very much marijuana-related crime in my practice,” Pfefferle added.
The jury is still out on what effect legalizing marijuana will have on the province’s roadways but law enforcement said if Colorado is any indication, there’s reason to be concerned.
“Since cannabis legalization in 2013 down there, their traffic-related deaths involving cannabis have gone up 150 per cent,” Haye said.
The drug has been known to effect a person’s perception and make them very sleepy.
“It doesn’t have the pseudo-effect of alcohol where often times the bravery or perception of speed and those sorts of things as significantly. That being said, parliament, I think, has appropriately identified marijuana as a substance that could cause impairment when driving a motor vehicle,” Pfefferle explained.
In the eyes of the law, it doesn’t matter what substance it is – impaired is impaired. Experts also agree that using both cannabis and alcohol at the same time together appears to be the most dangerous since one is known to enhance the effects of the other.
“It could lead to impaired driving charges even if they are under the legal limit on both. The number of nanograms they can have in their body and the number of milligrams they can have for alcohol in their bloodstream,” Pfefferle said.
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