(Originally written for Lift Cannabis on 31 May 2016)

The Board was presented with a report calling for an evidence-based public health approach to the legalization of cannabis


The Toronto Board of Health met Monday May 30th at City Hall to, amongst other issues, discuss the Legalization and Regulation of Non-Medical Cannabis.

The Board, chaired by Councillor Joe Mihevc, was presented with a report from Dr David McKeown, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, calling for an evidence-based public health approach to the legalization of cannabis.

Eleven deputants, ranging from addictions and mental health experts to community activists and medicinal cannabis patients and to industry representatives, provided additional feedback on both the Medical Officer’s report, as well as their own concerns regarding the current approach to legalization. The Board ultimately approved the report along with four amendments resulting from the testimony presented.

Many of the deputants, including Queens of Cannabis co-owners Tania Luongo and Brandy Suborg, Toronto Holistic Cannabis (THC) owner Christopher Cardoza, and long-time medicinal cannabis patient Kostantino Beltsi, expressed their frustration and anger regarding the Toronto Police Services raids last Thursday.

The Board reminded the speakers that this meeting was to address the non-medicinal legalization of cannabis, but respectfully allowed the speakers to present their case and their arguments uninterrupted.

Throughout the meeting, Councillor Cressy repeatedly asked presenters if they could speak to the public health concerns of the current criminalized system. Chief among the concerns listed were increased incarceration of young people, the failure of the current policy to keep children and the public safe, as well as the undue exposure of cannabis users to more nefarious elements of organized crime.

When asked to list the potential public health hazards of legalizing cannabis, the Health Officer could name only a few far less detrimental impacts that still required further research, including the relationship between cannabis and driving, the impact of cannabis on pregnancy, the very small risk of dependency, and the potential links between mental health and cannabis use.

Councillor Cressy finished his line of questions at the end of the meeting by asking the Medical Officer explicitly whether maintaining the status quo of criminalization posed a greater threat to public health than the introduction of a regulatory framework for legalization.

Dr. McKeown unequivocally responded that the longer we wait to implement a public-health framework for the legalization of recreational cannabis, the longer we prolong the negative public health impacts of the current regime.  At this point, Councillor Joe Cressy moved that the Board of Health urge the Government of Canada to provide immediate interim guidance to municipalities while they await full directives in the Spring of 2017.

1 – Motion to Amend Item (Additional) moved by Councillor Joe Cressy(Carried)That the Board of Health urge the Government of Canada to provide immediate interim guidance on how municipalities should approach the possession and sale of non-medical cannabis, using a public health approach, prior to the forthcoming legalization and regulation in 2017.

Board of Health member Stacey Berry, in response to a section of the report calling for additional research into the potential hazards and misinformation surrounding driving under the influence of cannabis, moved that the report be passed on, not only to the federal government, but also to the Provincial and Federal Ministries of Transportation for further review and consideration.

2 – Motion to Amend Item (Additional) moved by Stacey Berry (Carried)That Recommendation 4 of the report be amended by also forwarding the report to the Provincial and Federal Ministries of Transportation.

Dennis Long, Executive Director of Breakaway Addiction Services spoke passionately to the need to avoid the moral panic that so often arises when discussing the legalization of cannabis.

He called on the Board to ensure that, along with the recommendations of the Medical Officer, they promote an education campaign aimed at all ages to help demystify and debunk many of the common misconceptions that are a legacy of Reefer Madness and the failed War on Drugs. As a result of his and other deputations, the Chair moved that the Board begin the immediate development of a public health education plan to better inform the public of the facts around cannabis use.

3 – Motion to Amend Item (Additional) moved by Councillor Joe Mihevc(Carried)That the Medical Officer of Health be requested to begin an educational campaign on the risks and benefits of the use of non-medical cannabis.

Finally, Trustee Chris Glover moved to introduce perhaps the most nuanced and unique motion in response to the day’s deputations. Matias Marin spoke to the Board on the disproportionate impact the criminalization of cannabis has had on low-income and marginalized communities historically. These communities, such as Regent Park and the Esplanade where he grew up, are more likely to have higher concentrations of individuals currently earning a living through the illegal sale of cannabis.

With legalization around the corner, he argued that by removing this element of the black market, it would further marginalize many low-income communities. Those losing their source of income will either be facing greater levels of poverty, or will be forced to enter more hazardous elements of the black market in order to continue providing for their families.

Trustee Glover called on the Board as well as the federal government, to consider directing a portion of the new revenue as well as the cost savings associated with legalization towards the support of low-income communities who might be disproportionately impacted by the legalization of cannabis.

4 – Motion to Amend Item (Additional) moved by Trustee Chris Glover(Carried)That the Board of Health urge the federal Minister of Health to earmark some of the savings and tax revenue generated from the legalization of cannabis toward low income communities, particularly those affected by the unintended consequences of legalization.

It is worth noting that among the 11 deputatants, as well as the council members and public appointees present, the majority of the discussion on the legalization of cannabis for recreational use was positive and solution oriented. There was no opposition brought forward from a public health standpoint or any other angle against the idea of legalization.

There did however, remain obvious frustration from those in the medicinal cannabis industry. The Board reminded those present that this meeting was called to discuss public health, not zoning and licensing.

They also noted this particular report had been called for in the Fall of 2015 and therefore predated the current dispensary situation in the City.

Full video available here.

Featured image: Dr. Jürgen Rehm, Director of the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research at CAMH, starts the discussion on recreational cannabis at Toronto Board of Health meeting. 

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