Integrating cannabis into your lifestyle in a bigger way? Here's what you might want to consider

Experts sound in on balance, risks and the questions to ask yourself.

Experts sound in on balance, risks and the questions to ask yourself.

In the months leading up to the legalization of recreational cannabis in Canada, my inbox has overflowed with the artful and alluring marketing of cannabis products, companies and experts promising better sleep, more effective workouts, mind blowing orgasms, pain relief, anxiety reduction, even the curbing of appetite. As a lifestyle content producer I've been invited to information sessions, "art and culinary experiences", even a "wake and bake" to celebrate the "end of prohibition" complete with a complimentary breakfast burrito. It's all worked. I find myself cannabis curious and eager to learn more about and try what is now available - hooked by the pitch of better mind and body experiences, and medicinal and recreational benefits. Apparently, I've been missing out, but not anymore: this is how and where you can now buy cannabis in Canada.

What does this mean for me?

Statistics Canada estimates that Canadians will spend 1 billion dollars on cannabis in the final quarter of 2018 alone - which means a lot of cannabis will be available in one form or another. To you! But beware of billion dollar industries bearing good news stories. On October 15, two days prior to legalization, The Canadian Medical Health Association Journal released an editorial by its editor-in-chief, Dr. Diane Kelsall, who put it this way "the government of Canada will launch a national, uncontrolled experiment in which the profits of cannabis producers and tax revenues are squarely pitched against the health of Canadians." If you, like me, are already struggling with insidious everyday vices like unhealthy phone habits, your diet and social drinking, adding (or upping) this offering for recreation bears asking questions and considering the impact.

Michelle Bilodeau is a writer, CBC Life contributor, mother, "out and proud user" and proponent of the wellness benefits of cannabis. She's advised us on everything from the latest in infused skincare to how to speak to your teenage kids about cannabis. Bilodeau predicts we'll move past edible confections like chocolate and gummies - which, despite remaining illegal until some point in 2019, are readily available from online retailers - into more sophisticated iterations of cannabis-infused foods like cooking oils, dressings and sauces. To her point, semi-secret supper clubs in Canadian cities are already testing the waters of elevated/"high" dining, with an eye to expanding their official restaurant menus and catering offerings whenever recreational edibles are legalized, which is expected to happen in the next year.

Bilodeau's advice for someone like me who is not yet well versed in cannabis products but may be considering recreational use: "Be open to experimenting in order to find the right strain for you. At first, try out a strain with a low THC percentage and try it at home - this way, you'll be able to experience the effects in a safe environment and feel comfortable once you know how the plant is going to affect you. Also, try a small amount, and work your way up to higher dose." She warns against bad reactions and allergies, hence the small doses.

Everyday influences may not stop there. Employment lawyer Howard Levitt has serious concerns with the social acceptance that comes with legalization, not the least of which is that Canadian workplaces are ill prepared.

"They are not prepared because they haven't got policies in place yet," he told us. "They can't appreciate that people are going to have all kinds of misapprehensions about what they can do and what they can't do. People think that because marijuana is legal, they can come to work intoxicated. They're allowed to go on lunch breaks and smoke marijuana and, especially if they have access to medical marijuana, that they're allowed to have breaks in order to take it. And that just isn't the law. And employers are going to have a very rude awakening."

Can you become addicted to cannabis?

In an opinion piece for CBC News about what he's observed researching and treating people with cannabis addiction, clinical psychologist Jonathan Stea writes "A misconception I often hear is that if cannabis addiction is real, it must only be psychologically addicting, not physically addicting. This is not true. Researchers have identified an endogenous cannabinoid system, cannabinoid receptors and cannabinoid antagonists, meaning there is a wealth of biological evidence that cannabis can produce both tolerance and withdrawal in animals as well as humans."

Evan Newton, an addictions counsellor at Bellwood Health Services inpatient addiction hospital in Toronto, says that there is such a thing as problem cannabis use and addiction, and that they regularly treat clients for that addiction. "A substance doesn't have to be habit-forming, like benzodiazepines or like opiates, for you to become addicted to it. You can develop problem use of almost anything that gets you some sort of high."

Both Newton and Stea highlight a widespread denial of the real potential harms. They each point to the appearance of issues at work, in relationships and in mental health as indicators of problem use. Newton says other factors can increase the risk of becoming addicted, such as early life stress, traumatic events, a sad or difficult childhood, military trauma, mental illness and even alienation or boredom.

But why not opt for an altered state if you feel you can manage your use? Same as with alcohol, Newton says. "It can be a coping mechanism but a crude coping mechanism. You don't learn other ways; you don't learn how to exercise properly, how to keep a regular sleep schedule, how to meditate, how to go to therapy."  He says we need to be learning ways of "accepting and going toward that suffering, going toward that chronic feeling of discomfort and uncertainty… teaching yourself to sit with yourself, to sit with your boredom, to sit with your cravings."

Is it maybe "healthier" than alcohol, if making a choice?

"It's called cross addiction," Newton says, "where you basically swap one substance for another and it's quite common." Newton notes that the negative health effects of both alcohol and tobacco (on your liver, heart and as cancer-causers) are greater than those known with cannabis, and also more addictive and dependence-forming. But it still keeps the addictive process alive. "You're not sober, you're still reinforcing that instant gratification process, you're not exercising self control."

As for the "it's natural" argument, Newton says it's a pretty easy one to debunk. While it is a plant, as opposed to a man-made pharmaceutical drug, "Once a chemical hits the brain, the brain doesn't know if it's natural or not, it's just a collection of Cs and Os and Hs and it's just chemicals. But because cannabis is green and a plant it's particularly susceptible to fitting into that philosophy and that fallacy."

Are there other known health risks?

Back to that release by Dr. Diane Kelsall for the CMHAJ and the pesky battle of profit and tax revenue vs. the health of Canadians — especially younger ones.

Whether she meant it for me or not, Kelsall points out that the goal of the makers and marketers of cannabis might not be looking out for me but, rather, for my money: "Their goal is profit, and profit comes from sales — sales of a drug that, according to Health Canada, will cause a problem in nearly 1 in 3 adult users and an addiction in close to 1 in 10, with higher risks in youth."

In an interview with CBC Metro Morning's Matt Galloway, Kelsall expressed particular concern with the federal government's definition of youth - under 18 - and the fact that brain development is not complete until age 25. Kelsall said, "We know that the risk of dependency in a kid is about one in six".

In her piece she reminded us "Marketing efforts may include encouraging current users to increase their use or enticing a younger demographic. The track record for tobacco producers has not been encouraging in this regard, and it is unlikely that cannabis producers will behave differently."

The ways in which you can consume cannabis also cause the health effects to vary. For more on CBD oil, THC and your brain, watch this replay of a live stream discussion between Dr. Brian Goldman and CBC News' Heather Hiscox.

About buying...

Consider also, as we (if you are participating) create this new market together: who is included, who you are hearing from, who you are not? As with anything, you as a consumer have the power and are making choices that have impact. For instance, in today's legalization episode of Metro Morning, Andrea Boucaud, a cannabis advocate and Rastafari, points out that "We need to touch on the cultivators, those are the folks that we are leaning on right now, knowing that they already have previous charges. But they are the ones that have been holding the knowledge and the secrets about how to care and cultivate this plant. How to share this plant and just even to talk about things like edibles." In the same discussion, activist Ian Campeau of the Ojibwe, Anishinaabe from the Nipissing First Nation, formerly of A Tribe Called Red, said that the Indigenous cannabis industry will be a "parallel" industry, federally legislated, with their own experiences and offerings worth exploring as you build allegiance to a brand or supplier. Ian also notes that those producers fall outside of Ontario provincial legislation and are able to provide things like edibles now.

On monitoring and adjusting

My fully developed, post-25-year-old-brain is not going to kid itself about the substance it wants to experiment with or the reasons why. Even Martha Stewart can famously roll a good looking joint. But in the interest of balance, it seems like it will be on us to weigh studies and facts, our own trials and enjoyments and errors against marketing tools and options. All of which, there will be many.