British Columbia·In Depth

Canada's health minister says dispensaries normalize marijuana use

The City of Vancouver's plan to regulate marijuana dispensaries across the city has drawn criticism from Federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose.

Federal government wants City of Vancouver to shut down marijuana dispensaries

Federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose is critical of the City of Vancouver's plan to regulate marijuana dispensaries. She spoke to On the Coast's Stephen Quinn about this issue on Friday. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The City of Vancouver's plan to regulate marijuana dispensaries across the city has drawn criticism from Federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose.

On Friday, Ambrose was interviewed by On the Coast host Stephen Quinn.

Note: This interview has been condensed for online. 

Does marijuana not have value as a medicine? 

It's important that people know that marijuana is not a medicine. It has not been approved by Health Canada as a medicine.

Why create a regime to produce it and distribute it and allow people to use it for medicinal purposes?

The courts ruled about 10 years ago that said certain Canadians should have access to dry marijuana if they believed this was something that helped them...there is a regime in place that is administered by Health Canada only because it affects our legislation that is very highly regulated. It is a regime that is very robust that is overseen by the medical community and it will provide dry marijuana to people who believe they need it and that's in consultation with the physician. 

If it were not for those court decisions then, the Federal Government would not allow people who want to use marijuana for medicinal use, you would not allow that period?

No, Health Canada would definitely not in any way have anything to do with this. What the research and science shows conclusively is that marijuana is bad for kids, especially harmful to the developing brain. 

For the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of users of marijuana in Canada who say that they use it for medicinal purposes, that it provides relief not found with other drugs, are they making that up?

It's not for me to say. I'm not a researcher. I'm not a scientist. My real focus is kids. One of the reasons I have appealed to the Mayor of Vancouver to shut down these storefronts is that I think it sends a bad message to our having marijuana being sold in storefronts is a terrible signal to young people.

The groups that support legalization or decriminalization all say it's time to control marijuana, to regulate it, to tax it, to legalize it in one way or another. Why not heed the advice of all of these organizations?

Our government stance is clear, we do not support legalization. I would not support a Justin Trudeau Canada, where what's happening in downtown Vancouver [is repeated elsewhere] where pot dispensaries are opening up on corners. They are not regulated. Pot is illegal right now, unless you are through the medical marijuana program of Health Canada. 

How much money is spent on enforcement of marijuana laws across the country every year?

I can't tell you that. I don't know. All I know is that marijuana is very, very harmful to youth...and that's why we have spent money on an ad campaign and we will continue to do that. I mean, Colorado just spent $17 million on a public health campaign targeting youth about the dangers of marijuana. I think legalization is the wrong way to go. I think it will increase access for young people. It normalizes it and I just don't think it is worth it.

If you are worried about young people using drugs, why is the majority of the money that is dedicated to your National Enforcement Anti-Drug Strategy spent on enforcement then rather than prevention and treatment?

That is not true. In fact a lot of the funds that we invest are focused, especially in the aboriginal youth community, on prescription drug abuse in particular on prevention and treatment...and we just finished launching a $7 million public health awareness campaign around prescription drug use and marijuana use by young people...we just received a report that the numbers are going down in terms of use of marijuana among young people.

There's a poll from 2014 that says 37 per cent of Canadians would like to see marijuana legalized, 33 per cent would like to see it decriminalized.  Does that put you out of step with what the majority of Canadians think?

I'm not worried about polls. I'm worried about the fact that a lot of our facilities that deal with mental health and addiction have young people with serious mental health issues from smoking marijuana. I do not support this idea of mass commercialisation in cities, which is what I assumed the resolution that the mayor and council of Vancouver wants to look at and its exactly what Justin Trudeau wants to do in terms of legalizing marijuana across the country.

To listen to the full interview with Rona Ambrose, listen to the audio labelled Ambrose Q & A

Map of Vancouver's pot shops

Note: CBC created this map after pulling together a list of marijuana-related businesses from various sources, including Leafly and the businesses' own websites. The City of Vancouver declined to provide CBC with the full list.