Mr. Chairman, committee members, I bring to this presentation 40 years of experience in the prevention and treatment of drug problems. I've been a counsellor, a community developer, a teacher and a policy analyst. I think my interest is really in drug policy broadly defined to include alcohol, tobacco, pharmaceuticals, and it's within that context that I view this new drug industry we are establishing.
When we think about prevention of drug problems, we usually think of providing people with information to help them make informed decisions. Another necessary part of an effective drug prevention program is development of a regulatory framework for drug industry practices. This is a critical part of what we mean when we talk about strict regulation.
Alcohol, tobacco, pharmaceuticals, and cannabis are not ordinary commodities. Each year in Canada, alcohol and tobacco alone are associated with approximately 40,000 premature deaths, six and a half million days in hospital and a cost to the Canadian economy of over $30 billion. I want to emphasize that those are annual figures. The alcohol and tobacco crises have been with us for a long time, so long we don't think of them as crises. Despite our efforts at prevention and treatment, they persist year after year.
Recently a new drug epidemic has emerged. The opioid crisis began when a drug company aggressively launched a misleading advertising campaign for an opioid painkiller, oxycodone. The same company is now taking the same drug to the developing world with the same misleading information. During the campaign to legalize recreational cannabis, Canadians have received repeated assurances that this new industry will be strictly regulated, like other legal drug industries, and that this will provide the needed safeguards of the public's health.
A half century of international drug policy evidence tells us it is not so simple. Across our established legal drug industries, we see frequent failures in the striking of that important balance between industry revenue and protection of public health. The result is an enormous amount of harm that stresses our communities, families and treatment programs.
The state of the union is that we have three legal regulated drug industries and three public health crises. Early indications from the emerging legal cannabis industry suggest that it may be on a similar trajectory.
Perhaps it is time for a new approach. Many of the decisions in the development of legislation require the striking of that balance, sometimes a choice, between facilitating the success of a new drug industry and protecting public health. The logistics of cannabis legalization, as I'm sure everybody is realizing now, are incredibly complex. The stakes are high, outcomes uncertain, and caution is wise. Accordingly, I hope that the Standing Committee on Health will assign priority to the protection of public health and the prevention of harm.
I will provide four specific suggestions for doing so.
The first issue is a minimum legal age for cannabis use. Research shows that young people acquire their cannabis through their network of peer relationships. This is very important. The peer networks of young people, say 15- to 17-year-olds, are more likely to include 18- and 19-year-olds than they are to include 21-year-olds. Consequently, over the long term, a minimum age of 18 or 19 will, as we've heard, give easier access to cannabis for 15- to 17-year olds than will a minimum age of 21.
My first recommendation is that the government should choose public health protection over a larger legal market by setting a minimum age of 21.
The second issue is the importance of a full ban on advertising and other forms of product promotion. Research shows that advertising increases use of a drug and that increases in use of a drug are associated with increases in related problems. Advertising, even with strict limits, will increase cannabis use and related problems.
My second recommendation is that the government should choose public health protection over market growth by legislating a full ban on all forms of cannabis product promotion.
The third issue is the importance of a non-profit model or options for cannabis supply. We already have three legal, regulated, profit-driven drug industries which have not succeeded in protecting public health. We can reduce the risk of creating a fourth by removing the profit motive from cannabis sales. An essential difference is that a non-profit retail model would serve only the existing market, with no product promotion or product innovation intended to increase the size of that market.
My third recommendation is that the government should choose public health protection over market growth by restricting the retail of cannabis to a non-profit organization with public health governance.
The fourth issue is the importance of social justice for prevention and treatment. Between now and the widespread availability of legal recreational cannabis, which will require an amount of time well beyond July 2018, people are expected to continue to “just say no” to the use of recreational cannabis. It is unrealistic to expect that to happen. Charges for simple possession of cannabis amounted to well over 17,000 in 2016. Issuing of more criminal records will continue to have a devastating impact on the social determinants of health of these mostly young Canadians. Prohibition also poses a problem for those who are dependent on cannabis and are seeking treatment to improve their lives. In my experience as a counsellor, I never encountered a patient who was helped by a criminal record. It actually impeded their efforts.
My fourth recommendation is that the government should immediately decriminalize possession of small amounts of cannabis.
Mr. Chair, that concludes my prepared statement. Thank you again for this opportunity. I will do my best to address any questions committee members may have.