Ottawa beefs up public-awareness campaign on marijuana

The federal government will be spending an additional $36.4-million over five years to educate Canadians on the dangers of using cannabis at a young age and impaired driving, hoping to address growing concerns over the drug’s legalization.

The new money comes in addition to $9.6-million in previously announced spending on public-awareness campaigns, with eight months to go before the government’s July 1 deadline to legalize cannabis for recreational use by adults.  The federal campaign will target young Canadians and other vulnerable groups, such as Indigenous people, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and Canadians with a history of mental illness. Health experts have pointed out that cannabis users under the age of 25 face greater long-term risks than adults.

“We want to target kids,” Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said at a news conference. “There is a lot of misinformation about cannabis, so first and foremost, we have to educate people.”

Bill Blair, the Liberal point man on the legalization file, added that previous campaigns on tobacco and drinking-and-driving have shown their effectiveness in reducing negative behaviour. In the context of legal cannabis, he added, the public-awareness campaign will focus on the health effects of using marijuana instead of the potential legal consequences.

“The earlier [young people] begin to use it, the more frequently they use it and the higher the potency of what they use can all have very adverse effects on their health but also on their social outcomes,” said the parliamentary secretary to the ministers of Health and Justice. “We want to make sure young people have the information that they need to make smarter choices.”

Another of the goals of the public-awareness campaign will be to educate drivers on the dangers of using marijuana before taking the wheel, especially when alcohol is also involved.  “Impaired driving is the leading criminal cause of death and injury in Canada, and drug-impaired driving has been increasing every year since 2009,” Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said in a statement. “Public education and awareness will help Canadians, especially youth and their parents, understand the potentially deadly risks of driving while impaired by cannabis or other drugs.”

The lack of preparations on the education front has fuelled various complaints about the government’s legislation to legalize cannabis, which has been studied by the health committee of the House.  Young Canadians consistently rank among the heaviest users of cannabis in the world despite the long-standing prohibition and decades of scare tactics aimed at preventing the use of illicit substances.

Rebecca Haines-Saah, an expert on youth substance use from the University of Calgary’s school of medicine, said Ottawa appears to be moving away from the “this is your brain on drugs” approach to education, but much more must be done to listen to young cannabis users about why they consume the drug.

A request for proposals on a cannabis education campaign put out by the federal government this fall highlighted a problematic key message that cannabis, like alcohol, is dangerous, Ms. Haines-Saah said.  “It’s a bit disingenuous to say that, like alcohol, cannabis has risks because the bottom line, the reason why we’re legalizing this drug, is it has less social and health harms at the community and individual level,” she said.

As well, the federal government’s request that the campaign stress to young people that cannabis will stop them from reaching their “full potential” might not resonate with those who use the drug too much, Ms. Haines-Saah said.  “Yes it would be ideal if we could not use substances to cope, but what about those people who are saying, ‘Hey, I need something to cope with daily life with the stress and this is a less risky choice than something that I can potentially overdose on,'” she said.

Ian Culbert, the executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association, said Canadians must become at ease when they talk about cannabis and discuss potential negative effects with their children.  “The prohibition model currently in place in Canada has severely hampered health promotion and harm-reduction efforts. The only message we had at our disposal was, ‘Just say no,’ and clearly that has failed,” he told the committee in September. “It is our view that legal cannabis sales must therefore be preceded by comprehensive, non-judgmental, non-stigmatizing health-promotion campaigns across Canada that have a clear and consistent message.”

Former federal minister Anne McLellan, who chaired a task force on the legalization of the drug, said that simply setting a legal age of 18 (or higher, depending on the province) would be insufficient to prevent consumption among young Canadians.

“We recommended that robust preventive measures such as sustained public education along with smart regulation would better control access and use by young adults and mitigate health risks,” Ms. McLellan, who now works for a law firm that advises the medical cannabis industry, told the health committee.

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