The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) is pleased to present this brief to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health for consideration as part of its study on the health risks and harms associated with the use of marijuana.
Marijuana, or cannabis, is a Schedule II drug under the Canadian Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, and growing, possessing, distributing and selling marijuana is illegal, subject to penalties.
Despite that, according to the latest Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey1, about 10% of Canadians ages 15 years and over had used marijuana at least once in the past year. It is the second most used substance, following alcohol (at 78%). Even though there has been a decrease in marijuana use among youth (ages 15 to 24) in recent years, usage is still double that of the general population, at 20%. A quarter of youth that had used marijuana in the past 3 months, used it daily, however most use is infrequent and experimental. The average age of initiation is 16.1 years, and it is very concerning that continued use is most common among those who initiate use early. In some provinces, about 50% of students in grade 12 have reported using marijuana in the past year.2
The 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey - Mental Health3 reported that 1.3% of people aged 15 and over met the criteria for cannabis abusea or dependenceb - double that of any other drugs. The lifetime risk of dependence is estimated at about 9%, increasing to almost 17% in those who initiate use in adolescence.4 Similar estimates for other substances are 15% for alcohol, 23% for heroin and 32% for nicotine.
CMA has longstanding concerns about the health risks associated with smoking marijuana. While our comments have more recently been made in the context of medical marijuana, the core issue is the same: marijuana usage poses serious health risks5. Teenagers are particularly at risk for marijuana-related harms, given their brain is undergoing rapid, extensive development.
It is estimated that marijuana contains more than 400 active chemicals, including over 60 cannabinoids, of which delta-9 tetra-hydrocannabinol (THC) is the most often studied due to its psychoactive properties. The concentration of the various chemicals varies for different plants, batches and growth locations, and has varied over time. There is the potential for contamination by pesticides or other substances. Rates and quantities of components absorbed will also vary depending on whether the drug is smoked, used in food, inhaled with a vaporizer or applied topically. This is challenging for research on the health effects of marijuana.
When marijuana is smoked, THC and other components are inhaled and absorbed through the lungs, rapidly entering the bloodstream. Effects are perceptible within seconds and fully apparent in a few minutes. The main feature of its use is that it produces a feeling of euphoria (or 'high') and sensory alterations, but it is also sought out to reduce pain, relieve anxiety, decrease vomiting and increase appetite.
Adverse reactions can occur, such as drowsiness, sedation, blurred vision, photophobia, difficulty breathing and vomiting. However, its acute toxicity is extremely low, as no deaths directly due to acute cannabis use have been reported. Toxic dose-related effects that can occur include anxiety, panic, depression, paranoia or psychosis. Acute impairment typically clears 3-4 hours after use.
Marijuana slows reaction times, impairs motor coordination and concentration as well as the completion of complex tasks. Marijuana use is associated with an increased risk of motor vehicle crashes. Young people, particularly males, are more likely to drive after using marijuana. The Cross-Canada Student Alcohol and Drug Use6 report states that 14-21% of students in Grade 12 reported having driven within an hour of using marijuana, and more than 33% of Grade 12 students reported having been a passenger in a car where the driver had used the drug.
Chronic use is more common among those that start using as young teens; those that are tobacco smokers and heavy alcohol consumers and have used other illegal drugs. People with a number of pre-existing diseases who are chronic smokers of marijuana are probably at increased risk of exacerbating the symptoms of their diseases. For example, adults with hypertension, ischaemic or cerebrovascular disease could be at increased risk due to the cardiovascular stimulatory effects of marijuana.
There is an increased risk of psychosis, depression and anxiety, particularly among those who have a personal or family history. A persistent lack of energy in chronic users has been referred to as an "amotivational syndrome". Although cognitive impairments (loss of memory, focus and the ability to think and make decisions) are likely reversible a few weeks after discontinued use, this seems not to be true for those who began using in early teen years, while the brain is still developing.
Smoke from marijuana preparations contains many of the same compounds as tobacco cigarettes including increased levels of tar. Smoking marijuana may be more harmful than tobacco, as it often involves unfiltered smoke and deeper, longer inhalation. Chronic users often have shortness of breath after exercise, coughing and chest tightness. It is probably associated with bronchitis and emphysema and may have risks for chronic lung disease and lung cancer, comparable to cigarette smoking. This is less of a problem for those that use vaporizers, as a harm reduction strategy.
The use of marijuana during pregnancy has been shown to affect the development and learning skills of children, more noticeably from the age of three, with these effects lasting into the teen years. Studies have shown an increase in hyperactivity, inattention and impulsivity. These children will be more prone to addiction and mental health issues as well as decreased cognitive functioning, and could require supports when in school. Some studies point to a lower birth weight.
Besides health concerns, marijuana use can lead to social and interpersonal problems, including difficulties at school, in relationships and with the law.
Awareness of Canadians of the harms of marijuana is generally low. 7 Youth tend to emphasize the drug's ability to help them focus, relax, sleep, reduce violent behaviour and improve creativity. There were also many myths, such as that it would counter cigarette effects, preventing cancer. Many stated that they did not consider marijuana as a drug because it was "natural" and relatively benign compared to other drugs. It is concerning that some teens said that marijuana actually made people better drivers by increasing their focus.
There seems to be skepticism around prevention programs which aim exclusively at abstinence. Feedback has been that effective approaches would involve providing more fact-based information at an earlier age and using programs that aim at reducing the harms of using marijuana. It is essential that youth and users from other age groups be involved in the conceptualization and development of any such programs.
CMA makes the following recommendations to the Committee:
1) Public Health Approach to Psychoactive Substance Use
The CMA recommends that the federal government adopt a public health approach to increase the focus on preventing drug abuse, on treatment of addiction, on monitoring, surveillance and research and on harm reduction.
Addiction should be recognized and treated as a serious, relapsing chronic disease, and substance use is a complex behaviour influenced by many factors. Therefore, a comprehensive multi-factorial strategy is necessary, and lessons can be learned from work that has been done to decrease tobacco and alcohol use and to reduce the harms related to these substances.
A public health approach would place an increased focus on preventing drug abuse and dependence; on the availability of assessment, counselling and treatment services for those who wish to stop using; and on harm reduction to increase the safety for those that are using. It would seek to ensure the harms associated with enforcement are not out of proportion to the direct harms caused by substance abuse. Individuals with drug dependency should be diverted, whenever possible, from the criminal justice system to treatment and rehabilitation.
The CMA believes that resources currently devoted to combating simple marijuana possession through the criminal law could be diverted to public health strategies, particularly for youth.
A public health approach also includes efforts around the monitoring, surveillance and research of marijuana use to better inform the strategy. This is essential to better understand the short and long term harms as well as policy options to address prevention, treatment, harm reduction and enforcement.
2) Comprehensive Education and Awareness Program to Address Marijuana Use
The CMA recommends that the federal government develop, in collaboration with the provinces and territories and key stakeholders, a comprehensive education and awareness program to minimize marijuana use.
A comprehensive program to minimize marijuana use should include, but not be limited to:
- Education and awareness raising of the known and potential harms of marijuana;
- Strategies to prevent early use in adolescence;
- Support for programs that decrease stigma associated with mental health and addiction; and
- Support for health professionals' awareness and evidence-informed practice in the prevention, management and treatment of drug use.
A specific focus on youth is essential, as they are not only more likely than adults to engage in risky drug use, particularly boys, but also disproportionately experience greater harms from that use. It is also particularly important for women of child bearing age, due to the risk to the fetus during pregnancy.
Information that is tailored to the needs of specific populations will help people make informed choices. Efforts to prevent, reduce or delay the use of marijuana could result in a reduction of suffering and costs to the health care system.
Health professionals must be involved and supported in this area, and it is important to ensure the availability of evidence informed clinical practice guidelines, practice tools and continuing medical education resources.
3) Driving Under the Influence Prevention
The CMA recommends that the federal government continue to support, in collaboration with the provinces and territories and key stakeholders, strategies for the prevention of impaired driving.
The CMA believes that comprehensive long-term efforts that incorporate both deterrent legislation and public awareness and education constitute the most effective approach to reducing the number of lives lost and injuries suffered in crashes involving impaired drivers due to marijuana.
Efforts to prevent, reduce or delay marijuana use, especially in youth, are particularly important. Education is also important as many are not aware that marijuana affects driving ability or even that there are procedures that the police can use to identify impairment due to psychoactive substances.
The CMA supports a similar multidimensional approach such as has been adopted with alcohol and driving. However, the specificities of impairment due to marijuana must be understood and investments made in research. Collaboration with key stakeholders such as schools, drivers' education and licensing bodies, as well as enforcement organizations is essential.
In conclusion, the Canadian Medical Association reiterates the concern of Canada's physicians around marijuana use, particularly by young people. We are committed to working with governments and stakeholders to address this issue.
a Abuse is characterized by a pattern of recurrent use where at least one of the following occurs: failure to fulfill major roles at work, school or home, use in physically hazardous situations, recurrent alcohol or drug related problems, and continued use despite social or interpersonal problems caused or intensified by alcohol or drugs.
b Dependence is when at least three of the following occur in the same 12 month period: increased tolerance, withdrawal, increased consumption, unsuccessful efforts to quit, a lot of time lost recovering or using, reduced activity, and continued use despite persistent physical or psychological problems caused or intensified by alcohol or drugs.
1 Health Canada (2013) Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey (CADUMS). Retrieved from: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hc-ps/drugs-drogues/stat/_2012/summary-sommaire-eng.php
2 Young, M.M. et al. (2011) Cross-Canada report on student alcohol and drug use: Technical report. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. Retrieved from: http://www.ccsa.ca/Resource%20Library/2011_CCSA_Student_Alcohol_and_Drug_Use_en.pdf
3 Statistics Canada (2013) Canadian Community Health Survey - Mental Health. Retrieved from: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/130918/dq130918a-eng.htm
4 Hall, W. & Degenhardt, L. (2009) Adverse health effects of non-medical cannabis use. The Lancet, 374; October 17. Retrieved from: http://mobile.legaliser.nu/sites/default/files/files/Adverse%20health%20effects%20of%20non-medical%20cannabis%20use.pdf
5 Beirness, D.J., & Porath-Waller, A.J. (2009). Clearing the smoke on cannabis: Cannabis use and driving. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. Retrieved from http://www.ccsa.ca/2009%20CCSA%20Documents/ccsa-11789-2009.pdf.
Diplock, J., & Plecas, D. (2009). Clearing the smoke on cannabis: Respiratory effects of cannabis smoking. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. Retrieved from http://www.ccsa.ca/2009%20CCSA%20Documents/ccsa-11797-2009.pdf.
Gordon, A.J., Conley, J.W. & Gordon, J.M. (2013) Medical consequences of marijuana use: a review of the current literature. Curr Psychiatry Rep 15:419.
Hall, W. & Degenhardt, L. (2009) Adverse health effects of non-medical cannabis use. The Lancet, 374; October 17. Retrieved from: http://mobile.legaliser.nu/sites/default/files/files/Adverse%20health%20effects%20of%20non-medical%20cannabis%20use.pdf
Holmes, E., Vanlaar, W. & Robertson, R. (2014) The problem of youth drugged driving and approaches to prevention: a systematic literature review: Technical report. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. Retrieved from: http://ccsa.ca/Resource%20Library/CCSA-Youth-Drugged-Driving-technical-report-2014-en.pdf
Kalant, H., & Porath-Waller, A.J. (2012). Clearing the smoke on cannabis: Medical use of cannabis and cannabinoids. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. Retrieved from http://www.ccsa.ca/2012%20CCSA%20Documents/CCSA-Medical-Use-of-Cannabis-2012-en.pdf.
Porath-Waller, A.J. (2013). Clearing the smoke on cannabis: Highlights. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. Retrieved from http://www.ccsa.ca/2013%20CCSA%20Documents/CCSA-Clearing-Smoke-on-Cannabis-Highlights-2013-en.pdf.
Porath-Waller, A.J. (2009a). Clearing the smoke on cannabis: Chronic use and cognitive functioning and mental health. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. Retrieved from http://www.ccsa.ca/2009%20CCSA%20Documents/ccsa0115422009_e.pdf.
Porath-Waller, A.J. (2009b). Clearing the smoke on cannabis: Maternal cannabis use during pregnancy. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. Retrieved from http://www.ccsa.ca/2009%20CCSA%20Documents/ccsa0117832009_e.pdf.
6 Young, M.M. et al. (2011) Cross-Canada report on student alcohol and drug use: Technical report. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. Retrieved from: http://www.ccsa.ca/Resource%20Library/2011_CCSA_Student_Alcohol_and_Drug_Use_en.pdf
7 Cunningham, J.A., Blomqvist, J., Koski-Jannes, A., & Raitasalo, K. (2012). Societal Images of Cannabis use: Comparing Three Countries. Harm reduction journal, 9(1), 21-7517-9-21. Retrieved from: http://www.biomedcentral.com/content/pdf/1477-7517-9-21.pdf
Porath-Waller, A., Brown, J., Frigon, A., & Clark, H. (2013). What Canadian youth think about cannabis: Technical report. Ottawa: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. Retrieved from: http://www.ccsa.ca/Resource%20Library/CCSA-What-Canadian-Youth-Think-about-Cannabis-2013-en.pdf
Racine, S., Flight, J., & Sawka, E. (Eds.). (2006). Canadian Addiction Survey (CAS): A national survey of Canadians' use of alcohol and other drugs: Public opinion, attitudes and knowledge. Ottawa: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. Retrieved from: http://publications.gc.ca/site/eng/349980/publication.html
The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) welcomes the opportunity to provide comments to the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs concerning its study of Bill C-2 (An Act to amend the Criminal Code and to make consequential amendments to other Acts). We will confine our comments to the portion of the proposed legislation that relates to impaired driving.
Canada's physicians support measures aimed at reducing the incidence of drug-impaired driving. We believe impaired driving, whether by alcohol or another drug, to be an important public health issue for Canadians that requires action by all governments and other concerned groups.
Published reports indicate that the prevalence of driving under the influence of cannabis is on the rise in Canada. We note that:
* Results from the Canadian Addictions Survey suggest that 4% of the population have driven under the influence of cannabis in the past year, an increase from the 1.5% in 2003 and that rates are higher among young people.1
* It was estimated that in 2003, 27.45% of traffic fatalities involved alcohol, 9.15% involved alcohol and drugs, and 3.66% involved drugs alone while 13.71% of crash injuries involved only alcohol, 4.57% involved alcohol and drugs, and 1.83% involved drugs alone.2
* In a 2002 survey, 17.7% of drivers reported driving within 2 hours of using a prescribed medication, over-the-counter remedy, marijuana, or other illicit drug during the past 12 months.
* These results suggest that an estimated 3.7 million Canadians drove after taking some medication or drug that could potentially affect their ability to drive safely.
* The most common drugs used were over-the-counter medications (15.9%), prescription drugs (2.3%), marijuana (1.5%), and other illegal drugs (0.9%).
* Young males were most likely to report using marijuana and other illegal drugs.
* While 86% of the drivers were aware that a conviction for impaired driving results in a criminal record, 66% erroneously believed that the penalties for drug-impaired driving were less severe than those for alcohol-impaired driving. In fact, the penalties are identical.
* Over 80% of drivers agreed that drivers suspected of being under the influence of drugs should be required to participate in physical coordination testing for drug impairment. However, only about 70% of drivers agreed that all drivers involved in a serious collision or suspected of drug impairment should be required to provide a blood sample.3
The CMA has, on several occasions, provided detailed recommendations on legislative changes concerning impaired driving. In 1999, the CMA presented a brief to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights during its review of the impaired driving provisions of the Criminal Code. While our 1999 brief focused primarily on driving under the influence of alcohol, many of the recommendations are also relevant to the issue of driving under the influence of drugs.
In June 2007, the CMA provided comments to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights of the House of Commons during their study of Bill C-32 (An Act to amend the Criminal Code (impaired driving) and to make consequential amendments to other Acts) which was later incorporated in the omnibus Bill now before your Committee.
Last year, the CMA published the 7th edition of its guide, Determining Medical Fitness to Operate Motor Vehicles. It includes chapters on the importance of screening for alcohol or drug dependency and states that the abuse of such substances is incompatible with the safe operation of a vehicle. This publication is widely viewed by clinical and medical-legal practitioners as the authoritative Canadian source on the topic of driver competence.
While changing the Criminal Code is an important step, the CMA believes further actions are also warranted. In our 2002 presentation to the Special Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs, the CMA put forth our long standing position regarding the need for a comprehensive long-term effort that incorporates both deterrent legislation and public awareness and education campaigns. We believe such an approach, together with comprehensive treatment and cessation programs, constitutes the most effective policy in attempting to reduce the number of lives lost and injuries suffered in crashes involving impaired drivers.
Drug-impaired drivers may be occasional users of drugs or they may also suffer from substance dependence, a well-recognized form of disease. Physicians should be assisted to screen for drug dependency, when indicated, using validated instruments. Government must create and fund appropriate assessment and treatment interventions.
Physicians can assist in establishing programs in the community aimed at the recognition of the early signs of dependency. These programs should recognize the chronic, relapsing nature of drug addiction as a disease, as opposed to simply viewing it as criminal behaviour.
While supporting the intent of the proposed legislation, the CMA urges caution on several significant issues, with regard to Clause 20 that amends the act as follows:
254.1 (1) The Governor in Council may make regulations
(a) respecting the qualifications and training of evaluating officers;
(b) prescribing the physical coordination tests to be conducted under paragraph 254(2)(a); and
(c) prescribing the tests to be conducted and procedures to be followed during an evaluation under subsection 254(3.1).
CMA contends that it is important that medical professionals and addiction medicine specialists in particular, should be consulted regarding the training offered to officers to conduct roadside assessment and sample collection.
Provisions in the Act conferring upon police the power to compel roadside examination raises the important issue of security of the person and the privacy of health information. As well, information obtained at the roadside is personal medical information and regulations must ensure that it be treated with the same degree of confidentiality as any other element of an individual's medical record. Thus, the CMA would respectfully submit that Clause 25 of Bill-C2 on the issue of unauthorized use or disclosure of the results needs to be strengthened because the wording is too broad, unduly infringes privacy and shows insufficient respect for the health information privacy interests at stake.
For instance, clause 25(2) would permit the use, or allow the disclosure of the results "for the purpose of the administration or enforcement of the law of a province". This latter phrase needs to be narrowed in its scope so that it would not, on its face, encompass such a broad category of laws.
Moreover, clause 25(4) would allow the disclosure of the results "to any other person, if the results are made anonymous and the disclosure is made for statistical or other research purposes" CMA would expect the federal government to exercise great caution in this instance, particularly since the results could concern individuals who are not actually convicted of an offence.
One should query whether the Clause 25(4) should even exist in a Criminal Code as it would not appear to be a matter required to be addressed. If it is, then CMA would ask the government to conduct a rigorous privacy impact assessment on these components of the Bill, studying in particular, such matters as sample size, degree of anonymity, and other privacy related issues, especially given the highly sensitive nature of the material.
CMA would ask whether clause 25(5) should specify that the offence for improper use or disclosure should be more serious than a summary conviction. Finally, it is important to base any roadside testing methods and threshold decisions on robust biological and clinical research.
CMA also notes with interest Clause 21, specifically the creation of a new offence of being "over 80" (referring to 80mg of alcohol in 100ml of blood, or a .08 blood alcohol concentration level or BAC) and causing an accident that results in bodily harm which will carry a maximum sentence of 10 years and life imprisonment for causing an accident resulting in death. (Clause 21)
We would also urge the Committee to take the opportunity that the review of this proposed legislation provides to recommend to Parliament a lower BAC level. Since 1988 the CMA has supported 50 mg% as the general legal limit. Studies suggest that a BAC limit of 50 mg% could translate into a 6% to 18% reduction in total motor vehicle fatalities or 185 to 555 fewer fatalities per year in Canada.4 A lower limit would recognize the significant detrimental effects on driving-related skills that occur below the current legal BAC.5
In our 1999 response to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights' issue paper on impaired driving6 and again in 2002 when we joined forces with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), CMA has consistently called for the federal government to reduce Canada's legal BAC to .05. Canada continues to lag behind countries such as Austria, Australia, Belgium, Denmark, France and Germany, which have set a lower legal limit. 7
CMA expressed the opinion that injuries and deaths resulting from impaired driving must be recognized as a major public health concern. Therefore we once again recommend lowering the legal BAC limit to 50 mg%. or .05%.
We also wanted to note our support for Clause 23 which addresses the issue of liability by extending the existing umbrella of immunity for qualified medical practitioners to the new provision under 254(3.4)
23. Subsection 257(2) of the Act is replaced by the following:
(2) No qualified medical practitioner by whom or under whose direction a sample of blood is taken from a person under subsection 254(3) or (3.4) or section 256, and no qualified technician acting under the direction of a qualified medical practitioner, incurs any criminal or civil liability for anything necessarily done with reasonable care and skill when taking the sample.
Finally, CMA believes that comprehensive long-term efforts that incorporate deterrent legislation, such as Bill C-2, must be accompanied by a public awareness and education strategy. This constitutes the most effective long-term approach to reducing the number of lives lost and injuries suffered in crashes involving impaired drivers. The CMA supports this multidimensional approach to the issue of the operation of a motor vehicle regardless of whether impairment is caused by alcohol or drugs.
Again, the CMA appreciates the opportunity to provide input into the legislative proposal on drug-impaired driving. We stress that these legislative changes alone would not adequately address the issue of reducing injuries and fatalities due to drug-impaired driving, but support their intent as a partial, but important measure.
Brian Day, MD
1 Bedard, M, Dubois S, Weaver, B. The impact of cannabis on driving, Canadian Journal of Public Health, Vol 98, 6-11, 2006
2 G. Mercer, Estimating the Presence of Alcohol and Drug Impairment in Traffic Crashes and their Costs to Canadians: 1999 to 2003 (Vancouver: Applied Research and Evaluation Services, 2005).
3 D. Beirness, H. Simpson and K. Desmond, The Road Safety Monitor 2002: Drugs and Driving (Ottawa: Traffic Injury Research Foundation, 2003). Online: www.trafficinjuryResearch.com/whatNew/newsItemPDFs/RSM_02_Drugs_and_ Driving.pdf
4 Mann, Robert E., Scott Macdonald, Gina Stoduto, Abdul Shaikh and Susan Bondy (1998) Assessing the Potential Impact of Lowering the Blood Alcohol Limit to 50 MG % in Canada. Ottawa: Transport Canada, TP 13321 E.
5 Moskowitz, H. and Robinson, C.D. (1988). Effects of Low Doses of Alcohol on Driving Skills: A Review of the Evidence. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, DOT-HS-800-599 as cited in Mann, et al., note 8 at page 12-13
6 Proposed Amendments to the Criminal Code of Canada (Impaired Driving): Response to Issue Paper of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. March 5, 1999
7 Mann et al