If the federal Liberals keep their campaign promise, legal pot is around the corner. The Village of Queen Charlotte is rightly preparing now for how to regulate marijuana retailers once it’s legalized. Legal or not, marijuana is a drug that affects the brain. We have a responsibility as a community to regulate access to this drug and to minimize harms from its use and distribution. According to the Canadian Paediatric Society, cannabis harms brain development during adolescence, making access for youth a matter of health. The society writes that “cannabis use during adolescence can cause functional and structural changes to the developing brain, leading to damage.” Doctors also raise concerns about marijuana dependence and associations between pot use and depression, anxiety, and psychosis.
Many young people (and people of all ages) use marijuana as “self-medication,” often to help manage depression and anxiety. Regardless of which comes first, the mental health need or the marijuana, untreated mental illness is of no benefit to young people. Well-being, not simply access to self-medicating drugs, is what’s needed.
That said, de-stigmatizing the use of medication for depression, anxiety, or other mental health needs through progressive policies around harm reduction and regulated drug access can be helpful in many instances. That’s why we should be thinking now about what legal pot means for the health of our community. I’m certainly no fan of prohibition – not of marijuana or of other drugs. But that doesn’t mean I support drug dependence, addiction, and unregulated access to powerful drugs that harm health. Decriminalization of drugs is not pro-drug. It’s meant to be pro-health, instead.
Making drugs illegal does not address the root issues around drug dependence and addiction, and doesn’t prevent the ill effects of misuse from taking hold. Likewise, making drugs legal does little to improve health on its own. With harmful drug use, there are two issues to consider. The first issue is the adverse health effects of the drug itself. Harmful and highly addictive drugs, like alcohol, heroin and tobacco, must be regulated so harm is reduced. For these and other harmful drugs, points of access should limit exposure and protect users as much as possible. Related to access, people should understand the health risks of drug use and should have accessible education and information on how to limit the harms from use.
The second issue is over the drives, or the unmet needs, that lead some to drug addiction or dependence. Using drugs to cope with pain (mental or physical) only masks root causes. People in need of support require more than these masking effects. Instead, they need healthy communities that support everyone’s well-being.
As a high school teacher, I am concerned about marijuana use by young people in our community. Issues of legality aside, smoking pot as a means to “cope” or being high much of the time is simply unhealthy. Being high on a daily or almost daily basis means you are “out of it” for much of your life. You learn less, limit your potential, miss out on sports or other activities, and put your relationships with friends and family at risk. If pot takes over your life, you risk missing out on much. This is no different than any other drug taking over.
Just because marijuana will soon be legal doesn’t mean that youth won’t be at risk for misuse of legal pot. The risks may even be higher, given how legalization may change attitudes about the health risks associated with cannabis use. Honest information about the risks of using cannabis and how to reduce potential harms will be needed as much in the future as it is now. Regulation of drugs is meant to make things safer, providing access to safe dosages and untampered drugs. Regulation is also meant to address the culture around drug use. That’s why it makes sense for the Village of Queen Charlotte to consider the social and health impacts of bringing legal pot into our village’s retail sector. Handled correctly, the legalization of marijuana presents a unique opportunity to make health and well-being be our top priority when it comes to managing access to drugs.