Prof panel posits pot policy progress

March 06, 2005

, The Varsity Online

'A lot of the debate is not driven by good science; a lot of the debate is driven by value systems, ideologies, and people will see what they want to see through those filters,' says Dr. Stephen Rivers, psychiatrist at the Hospital for Sick Children. Rivers moderated a forum at the Ontario Science Centre on marijuana legalization, designed to empower citizens to make informed decisions through an examination of the political and scientific points of view of the topic. Bill C-17 proposes to federally decriminalize personal use of marijuana while increasing the severity of penalties for growing and trafficking it. Though cannabis would still be illegal and dealt with through criminal law, possession of less than 15 grams of cannabis would be punishable with a relatively small fine.

The proposal to decriminalize was the result of two considerations, explained Patricia Begin of the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (CCSA). First, the number of people who have used marijuana has risen from 28.2 per cent in 1994 to 44.5 per cent in 2004. 'The criminal justice approach was ineffective and extremely costly,' said Begin.

Second, rates of use are highest amongst youth, with 70 per cent of young adults having used cannabis. 'There is an acceptance that there will be a certain level of use in society, particularly experimentation amongst young people,' says Begin. Given the negative implications of a permanent criminal record at an early point in life, the CCSA wanted an alternative to criminal law.

A professor of pharmacology at U of T, Dr. Harold Kalant is an expert in the health benefits and risks of cannabis, for which he has been made honorary fellow of the British Society for the Study of Addiction. In small doses, marijuana use enhances sensory experience and increases drowsiness, but at greater amounts, Kalant has found, the risks can increase to hallucinations and paranoia.

According to Kalant, who won the American Society of Addiction Medicine's Distinguished Scientist Award in 1995, the drug increases stress to the heart (of particular danger to older users), affects emotional and social maturation (of particular danger to teenagers), and is known to impair memory and learning (a danger to all). Psychiatric illnesses correlated with large doses of cannabis use include depression, anxiety and, when one is genetically predisposed to develop the disease, schizophrenia. 

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