The rush to legalize marijuana is a risk to public health, says drug policy expert

"I want a legalization approach which, rather than attempting to compete with the illicit trade, gives higher priority to public health principles."
Robert Solomon says the federal government's approach to legalization should give higher priority to public health principles. (Shutterstock)
Listen28:43

Mere decades ago, the American propaganda film Reefer Madness portrayed marijuana as a dangerous drug, one that drove users to hallucinate and commit heinous crimes. Now, pot is seen not only as innocuous, but as potentially beneficial.

This reform of marijuana's reputation has propelled the federal government's push to legalize cannabis by this summer, through the enactment of Bill C-45.

Robert Solomon at Western University in London, Ontario, believes the pendulum has swung too far and too fast, without sufficient consideration of the consequences.  

I want a legalization approach which, rather than attempting to compete with the illicit trade, gives higher priority to public health principles.- Robert Solomon

"We demonized it (marijuana) in the absence of any legitimate research, and now we seem to be making assumptions that it's benign, again inconsistent with the science," Solomon tells Sunday Edition host Michael Enright. 

"It's a risk," Solomon says, even though it is not as dangerous as tobacco or alcohol.

"I want a legalization approach which, rather than attempting to compete with the illicit trade, gives higher priority to public health principles," he says.

Solomon has been researching and teaching for more than forty years in the areas of alcohol and drug policy, and criminal and health law. He was a researcher four decades ago on the Le Dain Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs.

Solomon wants greater restrictions on access for young people, and more done to prevent and police marijuana-impaired driving. (CBC)
In this conversation with Michael Enright, he raises many concerns about the inadequacies of the legislation. In the view of many health organizations, including the Canadian Medical Association, the minimum age of 18 for lawful purchase, is too low.

In addition, there is nothing in the federal law about smoking while driving, standards for potency, a minimum purchase price or smoking in public.

"The legislation doesn't prohibit public consumption," he points out. "It only limits it to any place where you can smoke tobacco. So, for example, under the federal legislation it is not an offence to smoke cannabis while driving. You couldn't smoke up in Tim Horton's, but you could smoke up in your car."

Robert Solomon teaches law at Western University. He was a researcher, four decades ago, with the Le Dain Commission on the Non-Medical Use of Drugs. (Western Law)
Drug-impaired driving will also be a concern, Solomon says, because "the simple fact is, we do not currently have an inexpensive, quick, highly accurate way of screening large numbers of drivers for drug impairment at roadside."

Solomon says provincial governments will have to deal with these issues and the result will be a patchwork of laws across the country. 

"They've left all the heavy lifting to the provinces in terms of regulation and we're going to have 13 different regimes across the country regulating cannabis… We would have been better served by having a more rigorous federal regulatory approach."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.