Albertans can expect to see increased rates of injury — including impaired driving, burns and child poisonings — after recreational cannabis becomes legal, suggests a new report from the University of Alberta.
The report from the U of A’s Injury Prevention Centre examined more than 10 years’ worth of data from United States jurisdictions where recreational marijuana is legal, and found increased injury rates for a range of ailments and accidents.
The full report has been submitted to government for consideration in developing Alberta’s Cannabis Framework, new regulations intended to manage legalization in the province.
‘Cannabis is a drug’
“We, as Albertans and society, have to recognize that cannabis is a drug and treat it with the precautions we would any other drug,” said Kathy Belton, associate director of the Injury Prevention Centre, which is part of the U of A’s School of Public Health.
The report makes several policy recommendations to reduce the impact of legalization in Alberta, including administrative sanctions for drivers under the influence of cannabis, a well-regulated public retail system and improved public education efforts.
The report shows traffic fatalities increased significantly after marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington — from 49 in 2010 to 94 in 2015 in Colorado, and from 40 to 85 during the same time frame in Washington.
Jurisdictions that have legalized medical and recreational use of cannabis have experienced increases of about nine per cent in drivers testing positive for cannabis, alcohol and other drugs when compared to pre-legalization numbers, according to the report.
“These outcomes suggest that after legislation, more people are driving while impaired by cannabis,” reads the report.
“Alberta can expect to see similar changes in injuries when the new laws take effect.”
Child poisonings and burns
Poisoning rates increased too, said Belton, because some edible marijuana products look like candy and cookies — “things that children eat.”
The report recommends clear packaging, warning signs at retail outlets, and public education campaigns to alert Albertans to poisoning dangers.
“Following the legalization of recreational cannabis in Colorado, unintentional exposure to cannabis by children aged zero to nine years increased more than fivefold,” Belton said.
“The numbers were small, but 15 per cent of cases were admitted to intensive care units.”
“We know from Colorado and Washington that that’s how kids get themselves in trouble,” she said.
“They’re just copying behaviors of their parents.”
Between 2008 and 2013 in Colorado, there were 19 burn incidents. After legalization in 2014, 12 cases occurred in the first eight months, the report shows.
Belton said burn risks come from melting down cannabis to make other products, like extracting hash oil.
‘They want to stigmatize’
Lindsay Blackett, president of the Canadian Cannabis Chamber, said U.S. data shouldn’t be used to predict outcomes in Alberta because of different mitigating factors.
“Yes, there are some of those things that are problematic and have negative consequences, but it seems like everybody’s just piling on to make cannabis that drug that they want to stigmatize and continue to stigmatize,” Blackett said.
“If we demonize it, then we’re going to just drive people to the black market.”
Canada has one of the highest rates of cannabis use in the world, said Cam Battley, chief corporate officer of Aurora Cannabis Inc., an Alberta-based medicinal cannabis producer.
“And if we were to expect that there would be injuries associated with cannabis use, they would already be here,” Battley said.
Battley said research that weighs the risks of legalization is needed, but the industry is also advocating for responsible consumption.
The one thing everyone seems to agree on is investing in public education about marijuana. The world is watching, Battley said, so Canada had better get it right.
“We’re not inventing cannabis use here,” Battley said.
“What we are doing is moving from a very large, very sophisticated black market in cannabis to a legal, regulated and stable one, but the actual prevalence, the use of cannabis will likely not increase significantly,” he said, citing the more-than five million Canadians who use cannabis already.
“We are making it safer, and Canada we’ll be better off as a country as a result.”
Battley said Albertans should be more concerned with children and teenagers consuming alcohol.
“There are millions of homes across Canada with bottles of liquor at 40-per-cent alcohol sitting unlocked and they are not child safe,” Battley said. “That is effectively a poison that can kill a child.
“We are going to be much, much safer with respect to cannabis.”
The bigger picture
This week the Alberta government released updated pot guidelines designed to modernize the Gaming and Liquor Act as it prepares for Canada’s legalization of small amounts of recreational cannabis later this summer.
The amendments, introduced in the legislature, include a ban on vaping or smoking cannabis in retail stores, and making it illegal to alter a cannabis product, like taking the cannabis out of a pre-rolled joint and selling it separately.
New impaired driving laws came into effect in Alberta on Monday, introducing zero tolerance for cannabis for drivers with a learner or probationary license.
Once federal cannabis legislation is approved, there will be specific limits introduced for drivers with regular licenses.