Tara Marie Watson holds a PhD in Criminology from the University of Toronto and is currently working as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), specializing in drug use and harm reduction studies. Tara Marie also served as the graduate student representative for the Collaborative Program in Addiction Studies (CoPAS) for several years. Her dissertation examined substance abuse policy and related practices within Canadian federal prisons. Tara Marie has both longstanding interests in evidence-based drug policy and correctional populations, and research experience related to public health programming for people who use drugs.
How do you think Canada should implement Cannabis legislation?
The Liberal win over the Conservatives in the last federal election came at an important time for Canada to redefine its approach to drugs. The Liberal government has voiced strong support for cannabis legalization and a move towards a regulatory scheme that would mean people being able to have access for recreational use, as we have medical marijuana access in Canada. There are different models for regulating drug supply and access. For example, under medical marijuana programs you have a prescription model in place. Another way in which you can regulate drugs is through pharmacy sales. In a nutshell, there are various ways in regulating cannabis for recreational use. I don’t know what model will necessarily be implemented because that will be a long process, I think that process should be informed by evidence as well as looking at what other jurisdictions are doing, jurisdictions like the state of Colorado, that have legalized recreational cannabis sales, a country like Uruguay has done the same. There needs to be a lot of consultation with pharmacists, and the people who use, to formulate a path that’s going to be feasible.
Do you think the average Canadian citizen should be allowed to grow their own cannabis?
I think that’s very likely, for example, with medical marijuana there are regulations in place for people being allowed to grow their own at home. It varies, in Colorado there are restrictions on how many plants people can grow at home for their own cannabis consumption. There is variation how that particular issue could be addressed. I think it’s entirely possible in the future in allowing people to grow cannabis at home.
What are your thoughts on youth having access to medical marijuana?
Many people have this fear, including our former Health Minister, who has been vocal in her opposition of legalization. Many people have a fear that with the legalization of cannabis and recreational use is going to mean a sudden surge of young people accessing cannabis. Some of those fears are a bit unfounded. The war of drugs regime hasn’t stopped young people from having access to cannabis. In fact, there is empirical literature that has found young people readily having access to marijuana – the Monitoring the Future study conducted in the United States has found that cannabis is something that’s fairly accessible if you are interested in getting it or know where to go. In terms of keeping it out of reach of children and youth, I think there are important reasons why we would have regulations to try and prevent young people from being able to access cannabis readily. There is literature to suggest that cannabis use might have certain negative impacts on the developing brain and some linkages to certain mental health conditions. So I think there’s a real reason why we might want to implement policies that would restrict the sale to underage people and that’s something in place in certain countries.
How would you suggest a change in public perception about cannabis use?
Mass awareness campaigns can be one tool in terms of educating the public on cannabis use on what a regulatory scheme might look like. There needs to be a lot of discussions that are evidence-based and very realistic and honest about what we know about cannabis use and what legalization might look like. I think that’s very important, in comparison to a campaign launched by Health Canada, they put out some ads that were very anti-drugs, and scary in their tone. I think going that route was more of a fear-mongering campaign. Grassroots organizations, NGOs, a wide variety of stakeholders need to get involved in credible, evidence-based, honest education – awareness campaigns about cannabis.
How could harm reduction approaches be used in cannabis consumption?
Harm Reduction is an approach that has been around for several decades, it has a number of important principles including programming for people who use substances are safe, evidence-based, that they meet the dignity of people who use drugs. That programs and policies in place are along a continuum, to try and address people who use substance use and people’s level of readiness in terms of people using drugs in a safer way. A first step is the full decriminalization and then regulation of cannabis for recreational use. One of the greatest harms of substance use under punitive drug laws is punishing people for possession and purchase of drugs, that is a process that needs to happen immediately. Other harm reduction based approaches that can be implemented can include having honest education campaigns developed specifically, on populations that use cannabis. I think it would be valuable to have some tailored to young people, I think that there needs to be that incorporated to programs that try to help people use cannabis safely, there needs to be acknowledgment of cannabis use with alcohol use and with other drugs. Cannabis use on it’s own is often not linked to too many harmful effects but often times people do use cannabis in conjunction with substances and harm from that needs to be clearly laid out. I think there’s definitely room to talk about harm reduction in the context of driving, under the influence of cannabis. Certainly, opponents raise the issue of traffic safety and concerns regarding a sudden increase in people impaired by cannabis driving on roads. I think there needs to be a lot more research done and again, more awareness campaigns so that people know that you can smoke cannabis products in safer ways.
What are your hopes regarding cannabis legalization in Canada’s future?
My hope is that sooner rather than later we will see a whole cannabis regulation scheme in place for cannabis that people will no longer be prosecuted for possession and purchase for personal cannabis use. I hope that the liberal government upholds its promises to have a massive consultation with stakeholders to make this happen. Also, cannabis regulation will spur eventually, dialogue about having other drugs be decriminalized in Canada. In the broader scheme of things, we really need to form a Public Health model in terms of how we address substance use in Canada. That means taking away the issue of law enforcement and the criminal justice system and putting it in the hands of health & social services that have a much deeper understanding of substance use and the reasons why people use a variety of drugs and how they might be able to use in a way that’s safer. There also needs to be a stronger recognition in Canada that drug use exists on a continuum from cannabis to more serious use that is often preceded by experiences or histories of trauma, poverty. If there’s more explicit recognition of more of those broader social issues and how they relate more Canadians will be open to legalization, be open to harm reduction and I think that’s really the way forward.