Cannabis in Canada Pt 8

Cannabis in Canada: A Primer. Part 8.

Part Eight: Evidence-Based Policy?

In an interview with CBC’s Michael Enright, legal scholar Robert Solomon pointed out that “we demonized it (marijuana) in the absence of any legitimate research, and now we seem to be making assumptions that it’s benign, again inconsistent with science”. The lack of evidence and research on cannabis is one of the key themes of the Task Force Report on legalization of cannabis. This is most clearly articulated when the report explicitly refers to its recommendations as evidence-informed rather than evidence-based. The report stated that recommendations reflected the fact there are gaps in the current scientific understanding of cannabis impairment. Many of the recommendations recognized that the lack of research evidence suggested that Canada might not be in a position to create its legislative and regulatory system. For example, there were recommendations to create flexible legislative frameworks that could adapt to new evidence. The lack of evidence on the subject matter has been studied. A McMaster Health Forum Rapid synthesis focused specifically on evidence on epidemiological and societal consequences as a result of decriminalization or legalization of cannabis and found a total of 43 relevant documents.

The lack of evidence and research has received some limited news coverage. However, the bulk of the information on the issues comes from the advocacy efforts of physicians and health profession groups. In their submission to the Task Force, the Canadian Medical Association recommended a public health approach be employed regarding the legalization of cannabis and highlighted that surveilling research on marijuana use is essential for understanding the short- and long-term harms, as well as for developing policy options to address prevention, treatment, harm reduction and enforcement.

So much for evidence-based health policy. However, Canada has shown some commitment to research and evidence acquisition in the area of cannabis. In January, 2018, the Canadian Institute of Health Research announced that the federal government will be putting $1.4 million toward research into the effect of legalization of marijuana, divided between 14 projects. Additionally, in September 2017, Public Safety Canada hosted a research symposium on cannabis, brining together researchers from government, universities and non-governmental organizations. The lack of data, inconsistent and non-comparable data, and lack of access to data were common themes across research areas that were identified as priorities. Specifically, it was identified that data is lacking when attempting to understand anticipated licit and illicit demand for cannabis, the expert market, and the patterns of use of cannabis. However, despite these efforts, the Task Force aptly-described that the “clear reality underpins discussions and deliberations – encouraging and enabling more research and ensuring systematic monitoring, evaluation and reporting on other experiences is essential to good public policy in this area”. However much of the policy has been developed without this evidence. Hopefully, the flexibility that the task force recommended will be acted upon – however where these systems are so interconnected and there are many moving parts, it seems unlikely.

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- By Heather Webster