Cannabis Country

A look at the wonderful world of medicinal weed

By Mary Bart

On October 17, 2018, the Cannabis Act became law in Canada. The Act puts in place a new, strict framework for the control, production, distribution, sale and possession of cannabis. Its purpose is both to prevent youth from accessing cannabis and to displace the current cannabis black market.

Jill, 74, suffers from severe arthritis in her hands. She has tried a variety of over-the-counter and prescription drugs to help manage her pain, but with little luck. Now that cannabis is available and the stigma attached to it is decreasing, Jill is seriously thinking about trying it. As she says, “Why not? It’s legal and it may help me. I’d be crazy not to try it.” Here are a few basics for Jill to consider before she makes her first purchase.

The basics

According to Statistics Canada, 4.9 million Canadians used cannabis in 2017, spending $5.7 billion dollars. Ninety per cent of that was on the illegal market. One estimate suggests that this market will grow to $6.8 billion by 2020, with Canadians using 800,000 kg (1.7 million lb) of cannabis each year. Our provincial governments are expected to take in $3 billion in earned profits and taxes.

Although there are no current Canadian statistics on older adults using cannabis, a recent New Yorker article reported that seniors are the fastest growing group of users in the US. The article also suggested that there are two major groups of seniors turning to cannabis: those who have never tried marijuana and those who haven’t used it since the hippie era. Both camps now have hopes that is will provide medicinal benefits.

Latest regulations

The minimum age limits for purchasing and consuming cannabis vary based on provincial or territorial jurisdictions. In most, cannabis laws mirror alcohol consumption laws. Adults can purchase cannabis oils, dried and fresh cannabis, seeds and plants from authorized retailers (storefronts and online). They can possess up to 30 g of legal cannabis and share the same amount with other adults. Each household (not each person) is allowed to grow up to four plants for personal use from licensed seeds or seedlings, providing plant safety and security guidelines are followed.

Selling cannabis is only permitted if authorized by Health Canada and, in some cases, also by the Canada Revenue Agency. The Canadian government has a website that explains some of the basics: canada.ca/en/services/health/campaigns/cannabis/canadians.

Legally speaking

Although the use of recreational cannabis is now legal across Canada, each province, territory and even municipality may have its own sets of rules. Whether you are visiting or living in a province, it is your responsibility to know the law at that specific location. Things to watch for include how much cannabis an adult can possess, the legal minimum age, who is allowed to sell it to you and where you can use it.

It is important to understand the risks if you don’t follow the law. What many people don’t realize is that the production, possession, distribution and sale of illegal cannabis is still against the law, and can have criminal penalties from ticketing to up to 14 years in jail.

The packaging of cannabis is also now legally controlled. For example, retail packaging cannot show people having a party or look enticing to children. Each province also has its own “coloured excise stamp,” which has built-in security features to prevent forgery. In addition, the packaging provides mandatory health warning messages, just as cigarette packaging does.

A bottomless-issue pit

Unfortunately, legalizing recreational cannabis has opened a bucketful of legal headaches. “There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all method for resolving cannabis-related disputes,” says Toronto-based lawyer Marvin J. Huberman. He’s a co-founder of the Canadian Cannabis Dispute Resolution Centre (cannabisdispute.ca), a network of Canadian alternative dispute-resolution specialists. According to these experts, this is new territory. But, for now, here are a few areas that need to be considered:

  • Impaired driving: How impaired levels will be measured and the consistency of measuring tools needs to be agreed upon.
  • Privacy protection: Online orders can be tracked through credit card statements, which require a name, email address and street address. This information may jeopardize travel to the US,
    where prior use of marijuana must be declared. Delivered orders must also be signed for by an adult, which might create an uncomfortable situation for concierges or helpful neighbours.
  • Management and disposal: How will the police audit and manage homegrown plants, and how will they dispose of confiscated plants?
  • Workplace rules: What are the employer and employee rights? Are there standard substance-abuse guidelines and fit-to-work policies? Will there also be human rights violations and accommodation challenges for people with disabilities?
  • Disputes, landlords and tenants: A considerable number of issues have to be resolved with respect to condominium rules, tension between residents, plant growth issues, odour problems and smoke-free designations.
  • Intellectual property: There will be new patents, trademarks and accessories, as well as design marketing and packaging concerns. In addition, there will be a need to interpret competition laws, mergers, corporate buy-outs and misleading advertising

Pros and cons for older adults

A 2018 study of 2,736 over-65s, published in the European Journal of Internal Medicine, concluded that medical cannabis can be safe and effective in later life. Benefits included a decrease in the use of prescribed pharmaceuticals, including opioids. Overall, 94 per cent of the study participants reported improvements, with their pain level halved. Other research shows reduction in pain related to arthritis and cancer, as well as symptoms related to multiple sclerosis,  Huntington’s, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, as well as epilepsy, glaucoma, eczema and insomnia.

However, there are sighted risks associated with cannabis use, including memory loss, hallucinations, greater risk of falling, respiratory problems, attention and learning issues, possible over-eating and potential addiction.

Medical vs. recreational cannabis

Cannabis will continue to be available for medical purposes for those who are authorized by a healthcare provider and registered with Health Canada or a licensed seller.

Many doctors, however, continue to debate the merits of legalizing recreational cannabis primarily because of the lack of evidence, the lack of scientific studies showing it actually works, the lack of knowledge around dosing and interactions with other medications. Our recommendation was that once it is legalized, that there really is no reason for a separate medical system.”

Health Canada is expected to review the medical marijuana system within five years.

More research and public education

Legalization has opened the gates to new funding for research, private pharmaceutical companies and licensed producers who are eager to learn more about the effects the 160-plus cannabinoids can have on a variety of medical conditions. According to Philippe Lucas, head of research for the Canadian cannabis producer Tilray, “Canada is the first G7 country to legalize and we’re the de facto source of research-grade cannabis around the world.”

So, as the world watches our country deliver on its cannabis management program, and our families, friends and neighbours weigh in on either side of the discussion, we’ll be waiting to see how the availability of cannabis affects the lives of our seniors.

Mary Bart is the chair of Caregiving Matters, an Internet-based charity that offers education and support to family caregivers.

Meet Ross Middleton

“Constantly on fire” is how 63-year-old Ross Middleton describes the 15 years of chronic pain he felt in his lower limbs. His terrible discomfort came from a condition called small-fibre neuropathy, which is hard to treat with conventional therapies. Middleton tried a wide range of prescribed medicines for more than a decade, none of which was particularly effective. Frustrated with the results, Middleton began experimenting with cannabis-infused topicals and quickly realized that these new treatments were reducing his pain and improving his overall quality of life. Middleton started legally growing his own plants and producing oils, capsules, creams and tinctures for his own use. According to Middleton, “The oils and creams soak directly into my skin, which is ‘post brain blood’ and so I never get ‘high.’ It just makes my pain go away.”

Middleton’s enthusiasm for the health benefits of cannabis has led him to become an advocate for the drug, and he has even been called as an “expert witness” in court cases. He is also the executive secretary of the Ontario-based Canadian Therapeutic Cannabis Partners Society (canadiantherapeuticcannabispartners.com).

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