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Senator has reservations about cannabis

Tim Jacques
The Tribune

Photo: Adam Huras/Legislature Bureau Archive

While the recreational use of cannabis is legal in Canada as of Wednesday, Sen. Paul McIntyre has reservations.

“I voted against legalization. I made it clear in the Senate that I don’t have any problems with decriminalization, and medical marijuana. I don’t have any problem with those two issues, but I have a problem with legalization. I voted against the bill, and if I had to do it I’d do it all over again," said the Conservative senator in a telephone interview from his home in Charlo.

McIntyre said that he agreed that people should not end up with a criminal record "for a few joints." Decriminalization would not have made cannabis legal, but would have reduced the severity of the consequences of a simple charge of possession so that there would be no criminal record. It would be more like getting a ticket for a liquor offence.

He said he fears the health impact of cannabis on the population, particularly on youth.

McIntyre said the Canadian Psychiatric Association had appeared before a committee on which he sits, Legal and Constitutional Affairs, and “they pretty well begged us not to vote in favour of legalization.”

The position paper of the Canadian Psychiatric Association, posted on its website, recommends restrictions on the sale of cannabis to young people.

"Since regular cannabis use is associated with increased risk of schizophrenia, and may also negatively interact with depression, bipolar and anxiety disorders due to its biological effects on brain maturation, and since mental disorders frequently start before the age of 25, age of access to cannabis should not be prior to age 21, with restrictions on quantity and THC potency for those between 21 and 25 years of age," it says.

This concern was also raised by Jennifer Russell, New Brunswick's Chief Medical Officer of Health, at a technical briefing on cannabis legalization held in Fredericton on Monday.

“There are short-term and long-term health risks associated with cannabis and youth, particularly for persons under the age of 25, pregnant and breast-feeding women, and persons living with or a family history of mental health [issues]," said Russell, who added that using cannabis under the age of 25 can cause long-lasting damage to the brain.

"Our role at public health is to educate New Brunswickers about the risks associated with the use of cannabis and empower them so they can make informed choices," she said, referring to the "I'm In Control" campaign to educate youth about the dangers of cannabis use.

But the senator is sceptical that this is going to be enough to protect youth, once cannabis use is seen as mainstream, because he said that young people in New Brunswick aged 18 to 24 are already using cannabis at a rate higher than the national rate. 

McIntyre also fears that if cannabis was to be legalized, the Liberal government got things backward. He said that legalization should not have gone ahead until it was certain that everything was in place to ensure proper enforcement. 

“I’m concerned about the rise of drug-impaired driving, especially among youth.”

He said the bill was studied by the House of Commons and Senate.  He said that in Colorado after legalization of cannabis, there was an increase in accidents of 125 per cent, hospitalizations by 72 per cent, and emergency visits by 35 per cent, although he conceded that he couldn't show the correlation  necessarily translated into causation, just that one followed the other.

(On the Monday technical briefing, it was suggested that the spike in Colorado was caused by over-consumption by cannabis "tourists" from other states where cannabis wasn't legal, which is less likely to happen here because cannabis is legal across the whole country.)

McIntyre thinks that all the enforcement mechanisms and training should have been finished before cannabis was legalized for recreational use, because legalization means “we’ll be hit with reality.”

Drug recognition experts

A drug recognition expert evaluates a suspected drug-impaired driver after a police officer first conducts a series of field tests to see if there is probable cause to conduct further testing by the expert. These experts are trained to use a special 12-step procedure to form an opinion as to whether or not the driver is impaired by drugs, and what drugs many have contributed to the impairment. A toxilogical sample is also taken and sent to a lab and the expert's findings must be supported by the lab results.

The senator had raised the issue in the Senate on Sept. 26, when he asked a question of Sen. Peter Harder, the government's representative in the Senate. McIntyre said in his remarks in the Senate that an Order Paper tabled in the Senate had shown that only one RCMP officer in all New Brunswick had been trained as a drug recognition expert since 2015. McIntyre wanted to know where this officer was stationed, which Harder couldn't answer.

Cpl. Jullie Rogers-Marsh, media spokesperson for the R.C.M.P. in New Brunswick, said that there are 13 such experts in RCMP forces in New Brunswick, "strategically placed in the province."

She declined to say where the experts were stationed.

"In addition, we work closely with our law enforcement partners so that we can utilize their resources if required and they can do the same. Training is on-going and will continue as required."

Provincial spokesman Geoffrey Downey wrote in an email that New Brunswick has 32 law enforcement officers who are trained and certified Drug Recognition Experts, including the 13 from the R.C.M.P..

"The province has a target to certify a minimum of 62 front line law enforcement officers by 2022," he wrote.

"It’s important to note that although we do not get into identifying locations of DREs for operational reasons...this is a whole of province approach and all police agencies  have access to DREs and SFST [Standardized Field Sobriety Tests] trained members when required and have them strategically placed throughout the province. We will ensure additional ones are trained as needed," he wrote.