On Thursday, Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) released a report that said making cannabis legal, with strict regulations, would be the best way to reduce harms associated with its use.
Former Liberal justice minister Anne McLellan said CAMH’s report would demand the attention of federal ministers.
However, “the government is not going to move on the basis of one report from one agency, no matter how reputable,” McLellan, who is now a senior adviser at the law firm Bennett Jones LLP, told the Star.
It is likely the health and justice ministers would be briefed on the report and informally chat to one another about its contents, but it takes a lot of work to change the criminal code, she said.
CAMH has waded into the middle of an ongoing national public policy debate and its report would be “one more piece of evidence in that discussion,” she said.
Looking back at past radical social policy reforms in Canada, it is evident that it takes a lot more than one scientific report to change the law.
Baltimore-based tobacco control expert Ryan Kennedy said the lag time between scientific evidence and public policy changes was often very long.
It was in the early 1920s when health researchers first identified the dangers of smoking cigarettes. Over the next six decades, a number of reports from reputable international organizations were published on the topic.
In 1986, American researchers determined second-hand smoke caused lung cancer.
“And, it took 20 years from that report until we had the Smoke-Free Ontario Act in 2006,” the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health assistant professor said.
“CAMH is a respected institution in Canada and I think people are going to pay attention to their report, but I don’t think anything happens very quickly,” he said.
The road to legalizing same-sex marriage was similarly long, with many reputable associations weighing into the debate along the way.
University of Toronto Prof. Brenda Cossman said the fight for gay marriage played out in the courts against a backdrop of shifting public opinion and research supporting equality.
“I don’t think that you can point to any single report in the legal campaign for same-sex marriage. It was a decades-long legal struggle,” Cossman, who is the director of the university’s Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies, said via email.
No matter what the outcome of CAMH’s report, University of Toronto political science Prof. David Rayside said it was “very, very important” to have credible associations weighing in on public policy debates.
“No matter how you cut the cake, this is a remarkable finding and it addresses a number of issues beyond just a shift in the public sentiment (for legalizing marijuana),” he told the Star.
“It will strengthen the calls for change, there is no question about that — but that’s not going to translate into legislative change under this government.”
CAMH’s report suggested pot should be sold through a government-controlled monopoly at outlets similar to alcohol stores, with an age limit for purchase and prohibitions on advertisements.
Ontario Health Minister Dr. Eric Hoskins refused to comment on the report.
“It’s a federal issue. I am not going to wade into this,” he told reporters.
Canada’s Ministry of Justice referred the Star to Health Canada for comment.
A Health Canada spokesman said in an emailed statement that the government did not endorse the use of marijuana.
With files from Richard J. Brennan