Ontario prepping reefer awareness campaign on the dangers of marijuana as legalization date approaches
Think of it as Reefer Awareness, not Reefer Madness, an over-the-top 1936 film preaching the evils of marijuana.
With less than a year until the federal government legalizes recreational marijuana, Ontario is starting work on a public education campaign to highlight health and other dangers of pot – particularly to young adults. Health Minister Eric Hoskins wants the effort to hit the airwaves, newspapers and social media well before the new pot law kicks in next July 1 with 19 the likely age of majority in this province. “There’s strong evidence that the brain continues to develop up until roughly the age of 25 and evidence that cannabis use can negatively impact that,” he says.
That means possible memory problems, struggling with math and reading, general learning difficulties and a higher likelihood of becoming addicted to marijuana the younger someone starts, depending on usage levels, research suggests. “The key to all of this is very strong public education so that parents and kids understand what the risks are, like with alcohol,” adds Hoskins, a physician himself. “It’s about informed decision-making.”
The Canadian Medical Association and other health-care groups have been ramping up warnings about the use of cannabis by people under 25 as policies are being developed in Ottawa and provincial capitals. “Children and youth are especially at risk for marijuana-related harms, given their brain is undergoing rapid, extensive development,” the association wrote in its latest brief to the federal government.
“Our understanding of the health effects of marijuana continues to evolve. Marijuana use is linked to several adverse health outcomes, including addiction, cardiovascular and pulmonary effects (e.g., chronic bronchitis), mental illness, and other problems, including cognitive impairment and reduced educational attainment. There seems to be an increased risk of chronic psychosis disorders, including schizophrenia, in persons with a predisposition to such disorders. The use of high potency products, higher frequency of use and early initiation are predictors of worse health outcomes.”
Pot use in the 15 to 24 age group is double that of the general population, the CMA noted in an earlier submission to the House of Commons, warning “awareness of Canadians to the harms of marijuana is generally low.”
Hoskins promised “a substantial public education campaign” to point out the dangers of pot, and is taking a leaf from policy makers in Colorado, where marijuana is already legal. “One of the things that they have pointed out is that they wish, in retrospect, they had moved on the public education significantly before it became legal. They didn’t and so I’m taking that principle to heart. We can’t wait until July 1,” he adds. “It doesn’t necessarily need to be hard-hitting. It needs to be memorable but, again, it’s what is the best way to get information across?”
Colorado’s Department of Public Health & Environment’s campaign includes online tip sheets with advice for youth, parents, pregnant women and on health impacts in general. In many cases, the warnings are blunt: “Brain development is not complete until age 25. For the best chance to reach their full potential, youth should not use marijuana.” The tip sheet for parents says “do not allow smoking in your home or around children. Marijuana smoke is not healthy. It has many of the same cancer-causing chemicals as tobacco smoke.” Pregnant women and new mothers are cautioned about pot use, given that marijuana can pass into the womb and make it harder for the child to pay attention and learn. The active ingredient in marijuana, THC, can also get into breast milk.
Colorado also debunks some myths in its campaign, such as arguments like “since it’s legal, it must be safe” and “since it’s natural, it must be safe.”
While Hoskins has heard the push from some quarters to make the age of majority for marijuana higher than 19 for health reasons, he says that risks leaving a larger black market the federal legislation is intended to quash. “If it’s too high…that age group is going to continue to find it in the illicit market.”