TORONTO — Canada’s existing public health approach to cannabis use is unrealistic and should be adjusted to reflect the way the system approaches alcohol, a new article suggested Thursday.
The piece, published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health, concluded the high prevalence of marijuana use throughout the country requires public health practitioners to adjust their thinking around the substance.
Current attitudes towards cannabis use are too rigid to be effective in the current environment, co-author Benedikt Fischer said, adding more than 10 per cent of the adult population and about a third of young adults admit to using the drug in the past year.
Current practices advocating for total abstinence are unrealistic given the drug’s widespread popularity, and less tolerant than public health positions towards alcohol, tobacco and even injection drugs, he said.
Fischer said the system should instead adopt a more conciliatory position, urging people to modify their behaviours and reduce their personal health risks.
The “lower risk cannabis use guidelines” tabled in the article are modelled on the public health approach used to keep alcohol consumption in check over the years, said Fischer, research chair in applied public health at Simon Fraser University.
“I think alcohol is a really good model, and in fact the model I look to a lot,” Fischer said in a telephone interview from Vancouver.
“We’re accepting the fact that this is a drug that’s out there, that people embrace, that people actually enjoy. At the same time, absolutely not a benign drug, comes with a lot of acute and long-term problems that can be very hazardous and harmful to both individuals and society.
“However we have very targeted interventions, rather than the blunt hammer, black and white approach. We target these specific risks with the best interventions we have and try and reduce the very specific behaviours and outcomes rather than trying to reintroduce alcohol prohibition.”
Although abstinence from cannabis is still the safest approach, Fischer said users can take many steps to mitigate the drug’s harmful effects.
People who begin using marijuana later in life are less likely to encounter health problems, he said, adding early onset use can hamper brain development and expose youth to higher-risk situations involving more dangerous substances.
Early use of cannabis has also been a predictor of mental health conditions such as depression, the article said.
Starting later in life, as well as limiting the frequency and intensity of cannabis use, can have significant long-term health benefits, Fischer said.
Users should also disregard a common myth that marijuana users are fit to drive while under the influence, he said, saying the substance impairs memory and motor functions.
The article said five per cent of adults admit to driving while under the influence of cannabis.