Michael DeVillaer is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioural Neurosciences and a faculty member with the Peter Boris Centre for Addictions Research at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.
When Canadians have expressed concerns about upcoming cannabis legalization, the government has assured them that the legal cannabis industry will be strictly regulated to protect public health.
This promise raises important questions: Has legalization of our other drug industries – alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceuticals – prevented harm from their misuse? Have these drug industries effectively balanced the pursuit of revenue with protection of public health? Has government regulation of drug industries been effective?
A review of the research and policy documents is not reassuring. The many potential liabilities of the Canadian government's approach to cannabis legalization are described in my report, published by the Peter Boris Centre for Addictions Research at McMaster University and St. Joseph's Healthcare in Hamilton.
First, the research is clear that the great majority of current drug-related harm and economic costs arise not from the misuse of illegal drugs but from legal, regulated drugs: tobacco and alcohol. The extent of harm and costs is enormous, and continues year after year.
The epidemic of opioid deaths that has been sweeping across North America had its genesis in the conduct of the legal pharmaceutical drug industry.
Second, we have a history of pan-industry failure to balance revenue interests with the protection of public health. Industries protect their revenue by disregarding existing regulations and opposing the introduction of new evidence-based reforms. They also have a history of breaking the law to maximize revenues.
Third, government has been reluctant to adopt evidence-based regulatory reforms, and the effectiveness of existing regulations is often compromised by permissive enforcement. Rarely-assessed penalties are typically insufficient to discourage recidivism. In sum, drug industry regulation is not simply less than perfect, it is seriously less than adequate, and contributes to the perennial high levels of harm from drug products.
Early indications are that the emerging cannabis industry is on a similar trajectory.
There may be providers of medical marijuana who possess the best of intentions, but some of the big players have already distinguished themselves by violations of Health Canada's advertising standards, collusion with criminal elements, tainted product recalls and the knowing use of banned pesticides. There have been no licence suspensions. Regulatory oversight has been laissez-faire and ineffective.
The cannabis industry is now eager to make the enormously lucrative transition to a market for recreational use.
Amid indications of conflict of interest, the government's Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation has put forward recommendations that appear to favour industry revenue over public health.
Canadians have far more to fear from a revenue-obsessed, poorly regulated cannabis industry than they do from cannabis itself.
Cannabis law reform provides an opportunity to introduce an approach that truly places the priority on social justice and public health over revenue.
The approach begins with immediate decriminalization of minor cannabis offences that would save tens of thousands of mostly young Canadians from criminal records before legalization takes effect approximately two years from now. It would also save hundreds of millions of dollars in enforcement and justice costs each year.
Canada should continue to pursue a strictly regulated approach to legalization, but I strongly assert that the prevailing profit-driven, poorly regulated paradigm is a dangerous one.
Canada should establish a non-profit cannabis authority that would operate exclusively with public health objectives. The authority would serve only the existing level of consumer demand for cannabis products, with no objectives related to market growth. Epidemiology teaches us that market growth usually leads to an increase in related problems.
The proposal of a non-profit approach will not be warmly received by either the cannabis industry or the government, which looks to gain financially from the legalization of recreational cannabis.
However, given the legacy of failure of our for-profit drug industries to strike a balance between revenues and public health, a non-profit model for cannabis may provide the only opportunity to achieve a near-neutral impact on public health.