By ROB FERGUSON Queen’s Park Bureau
Mon., Aug. 14, 2017
When it becomes legal next July, recreational marijuana should be sold with more restrictions than that other weed — tobacco — says the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Ontario branch.
The group will release a position paper Monday calling on the province to ban pot smoking in cars with a “zero tolerance” policy, cap the amount of THC in cannabis products and use all tax revenues from them to boost addiction and mental health services.
Staff selling marijuana products in stores should have special training akin to the Smart Serve program for bartenders, with what the CMHA dubs a first-of-its-kind “Cannabis Card.”
“We have an opportunity to start fresh with this,” Camille Quenneville, chief executive officer of CMHA’s Ontario branch, told the Star before the wide-ranging, 18-page submission was made public.
The provincial government will spend the coming months settling on an age of majority for recreational marijuana, deciding on a retail network of stores where it will be sold, developing a public education campaign and dealing with a host of regulatory issues.
Ontario has established a Legalization of Cannabis Secretariat to co-ordinate the effort on behalf of all government ministries. Medical marijuana is already legal.
Premier Kathleen Wynne has strongly hinted the age of majority for cannabis will be set at 19, the same as for alcohol — a position the mental health association supports.
But Quenneville urged the province to set strict advertising and marketing restrictions, as with tobacco, to “minimize the profile and attractiveness” of cannabis, while going one step further with plain packaging to downplay brand identities.
“We think that makes sense.”
Cigarettes are now kept behind closed doors in stores with brand logos visible on their packaging, but alongside explicit warnings about the health dangers of smoking.
The association’s push for pot tax revenues to improve addiction and mental health services is based on concerns that “there’s a link between heavy use and anxiety and depression and psychosis,” particularly if there’s a personal or family history or if cannabis use begins in the mid-teens, said Quenneville.
“There’s not nearly enough mental health services for the population,” she added, also calling for more extensive research on causal relationships between cannabis and mental health problems.
Mental health and addictions now account for 7 per cent of the provincial health-care budget and CMHA is pushing for an increase to 9 per cent, as recommended by the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
“The one piece we struggle with is young people who are at higher risk for mental health (problems),” Quenneville said, which makes a strong public education campaign critical to reach “emerging adults” in their teens and early 20s.
Efforts to make people aware of the dangers of cannabis are needed to combat any mindset that “if it’s legally available and it’s sold, how bad can it be?” she added.
Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins said last month that he wants to government to get out months in advance of legalization with a strong public education and awareness campaign, especially given medical concerns that cannabis can be harmful to people under 25 because their brains are still developing.
Quenneville agreed, saying “we need to get at it. A year from now (to the expected legalization date, next July 1) is not a long time.”
On the concept of a “Cannabis Card,” Quenneville said it’s a logical step to certify that people selling recreational marijuana products have training on their attributes, risks and effects to better deal with customers.
“We don’t think it’s out of scope for marijuana, which can be more harmful. You have to have a level of knowledge.”
The proliferation of marijuana dispensaries also needs to be “cleaned up,” said Quenneville, whose association is urging the government to cut back the number of outlets where cannabis will be sold, to regulate hours of opening more tightly and to consider a non-profit retail model once legal sales begin next summer.
In the meantime, Ontario should be pushing the federal government to decriminalize, as soon as possible, the personal possession of 30 grams or less of cannabis, the CMHA recommends in the policy paper.
Youth offences on cannabis possession should also be decriminalized and existing penalties replaced with fine, community service or mandatory education or addiction programs.
“A lot of young people are being charged with possession,” said Uppala Chandrasekera, director of public policy for the mental health association.
For drivers and their passengers, strict enforcement of a ban on cannabis consumption of any kind in automobiles will be key to curbing impaired driving, the association added.
“A zero-tolerance policy would include both the driver of the motorized vehicle, as well as any passengers in the car. It is important that a clear message be sent to the public.”
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