Dr. Swann Debates Bill 29 – An Act to Reduce Cannabis and Alcohol Impaired Driving (Second Reading) – 15 November 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Wednesday, November 15, 2017.

Bill 29 – An Act to Reduce Cannabis and Alcohol Impaired Driving (Second Reading)

Dr. Swann: Thank you very much, Madam Speaker. Like many others, I haven’t had a great opportunity to research this important bill yet. I think it’s one that we’re going to have some lengthy discussions about, with, hopefully, more and more of the evidence brought to bear on the whole question of the timing of substance use, the combination of alcohol and marijuana and other drugs and their impact on capacity to drive safely, the age at which we in Alberta are going to see legalized use of cannabis.

What I am aware of, mostly through medical journal articles and interviews that I’ve heard, especially around the whole use of opiates and the combination, often, of some of these opiates with marijuana and indeed the synergistic effects of alcohol and cannabis, is that they are real concerns.

Having said that, I think we’re all aware that we’re embarking on new territory in Canada, including Alberta. I am one of those who feel that it was important to move towards legalization of cannabis, that prohibition has not historically been effective, and that the criminalization of this drug has contributed to a lot of suffering, a lot of crime, and a lot of damaged individuals when, in fact, it’s a very mixed bag. Cannabis has some significant medical benefits, and it has some significant harms when it’s misused and when it’s started too early.

I guess I’m influenced to some extent by the recent Canadian Medical Association Journal reporting that there appears to be very limited support for legalizing cannabis use or for regular use of cannabis under the age of 25 in the medical literature. That’s partly because, especially in males, the frontal cortex development is slower than in females. It is the area of administrative control. It’s the area of judgment. It’s the area of second thought. There is evidence that under 25, especially in males, there is much more significant risk of cannabis use. So I think it’s an area that we’re going to have to hear more research on, I hope, and have more discussions about.

Certainly, 18 is the very minimum where one would consider legalizing this, and I would argue and will argue that we should be having a very serious conversation about moving that up beyond 18 simply because of the immature brain and the susceptibility of that brain to the harmful effects, in some cases psychiatric effects, certainly serious psychological impairment associated in younger people with regular use of cannabis. It’s an important discussion to have.

I think it’s timely that the government has brought this forward, and it’s important that we have some pretty solid evidence presented here in this bill to help us make rational decisions about how we’re going to monitor and enforce standards of safety on the roads, measurements and penalties associated with the use and abuse of these substances.

There’s no question in my mind that our culture has come to the point where we have to take responsibility for the array of substances that we’re all having access to that have the potential for addiction, have the potential for harm, have the potential for some benefits. It’s finding that balance and ensuring that we invest really well in the educational process, both for young people and for older folks, who maybe think they know something about cannabis, who think they know something about the combinations and impacts of the combination of alcohol and other substances. I’m here referring to some of the psychiatric meds – sedatives, hypnotics, painkillers – that are being consumed by people in conjunction with, for example, alcohol or cannabis. Tobacco: another one that’s increasingly being associated with cannabis, with the mixing of the two and some of the harmful effects there that may or may not be recognized.

We’re in a brave new world. We’ve got a lot of important risks and benefits associated with this new wave of tolerance, I guess, and permissive use of these substances, and it behooves us to take our time to hear the best of the evidence.

It’s certainly increasingly being researched around North America. I heard a researcher recently at the University of Calgary speak about the fact that there is no safe level that she’s aware of of cannabis use in young people. She was referring to under the age of 25. She said that the evidence simply isn’t there yet that we know how to predict safe levels of cannabis in youth under the age of 25. That’s somebody who has spent her life researching primarily adolescent addictions and rehab programs for young people with mental health and addictions problems, including cannabis. She was very cautious in her recommendations at the nursing school about the earlier onset of cannabis use in young people.

While we’re debating the principle of the bill, I can fully support the direction we’re taking. I hope we can take the time to pull in some of the very latest evidence and that we will seriously look at the age of restriction and that this government might consider extending beyond the age of 18 because I think the evidence is not there for safe use at that age. Understandably, with the alcohol legal age being 18, it may in some ways send an inconsistent message, but until we know more about some of the negative impacts of cannabis on the young brain, I think it behooves us to really be careful and consider raising the age beyond 18 at this stage. We can always lower it later. It’ll be a lot tougher to raise it in the future.

I think erring on the side of caution would be my one recommendation, that we look at all the evidence and start to address the whole question of: what is the appropriate age, and what’s the evidence from around the world where they have had some different age legalization standards?

I look forward to the debate. I think it’s one of the most important bills that I’ve seen come before this Legislature, and it’s going to have long-term implications, as we’re all aware, since there’s nothing that has caused more suffering and death on our highways than alcohol and drugs. We’re now being asked to look very critically at this new dispensation under federal law that’s going to allow legal access to cannabis.

Thank you, Madam Speaker. I look forward to further debate.