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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26
HOME / STORY

Blowing Smoke

Nathan Raine
Published Thursday October 15, 05:44 pm
Harper goes to pot with silly marijuana comments

When it comes to drugs, Prime Minster Stephen Harper has long proved that he is “infinitely” clueless.

He made his latest dopey (ha!) drug statement at a recent press conference, during the last and most crucial leg of his re-election campaign, telling reporters that “Tobacco is a product that does a lot of damage. Marijuana is infinitely worse.”

He also said: “There's just overwhelming and growing scientific and medical evidence about the bad long-term effects of marijuana.”

Um, what?

Harper’s claims have since been widely debunked by tons of public health experts, but let's play devil’s advocate for a minute: As our Prime Minister, surely he has access to the latest and most comprehensive of scientific research, right? So there must certainly be some evidence that supports his statements?

“While there may not be 'overwhelming' evidence about the 'bad long-term effects of marijuana,' and the scientific and medical research in this area is considered to be in its infancy, regular use of marijuana is not as innocuous as people think,” says Dr. Yelena Bird, an associate professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Saskatchewan.

Bird says that research studies have shown that effects of marijuana include but are not limited to: cognitive and psychomotor functioning, respiratory ailments (in some cases, cancer), and addiction concerns, with about one in 10 becoming dependent.

So, okay: marijuana use may well lead to health risks. But is it “infinitely worse” than tobacco? Here’s where the PM's [willful?] ignorance is at its most glaring.

“It’s difficult to justify Harper's 'marijuana is infinitely worse than tobacco' statement for several reasons,” says Bird. “The scientific and medical evidence simply does not support it.”

Bird, not an advocate of any marijuana, tobacco or illicit drug use, outlines some of her research detailing how harmful tobacco use is. Here’s a rundown of some of the health risks of tobacco, based on Bird's scientific research:

“There are known therapeutic uses for medical marijuana. There are no therapeutic uses for commercial tobacco.”

“On average only less than 10 per cent of marijuana users become dependent, compared to 70 to 80 per cent of tobacco users.”

“Each year, nearly 40,000 Canadians die as a result of smoking-related diseases.”

“Smoking tobacco is estimated to be responsible for one in three of all cancer deaths, and more than 80 per cent of all lung cancer cases.”

“Tobacco smoke is known to contain more than 4000 chemicals, with nearly 80 per cent of those chemicals being carcinogens.”

“Among the four leading causes of death in Canada — cancer, heart disease, stroke and lung disease — smoking tobacco is the main risk factor.”

“It is estimated that tobacco use costs the Canadian health-care system approximately $17 billion annually.”

Meanwhile, marijuana has never conclusively been linked to any deaths from direct health effects. So: 37,000 deaths from tobacco use in Canada last year, 0 from marijuana. And using American data paints an even more lopsided picture: 437,000 deaths from tobacco, 29,000 from alcohol, 16,000 from painkillers, 8000 from heroin, 5000 from cocaine, 0 from marijuana. Yet it is marijuana that is “destroying public health,” Mr. Harper?

“The truth is that both tobacco and marijuana have damaging health effects, but is marijuana 'infinitely worse' than tobacco, as PM Harper claimed? To date, the scientific and medical evidence says no,” says Bird.

While research continues on the effects of marijuana, it’s not exactly helpful to spout these kinds of unqualified claims, particularly when they inform your drug policy.

“The use of medicinal marijuana in several research studies has shown promise,” says Bird. “I believe that our federal government should encourage more scientific research in this arena so as to be able to fully and objectively assess the use and effectiveness of marijuana for medical purposes.”

It's not the first time on his campaign trail that the PM has made some pretty dumb drug-policy statements. He claimed in August that Canadians don't want marijuana legalized, despite a report from the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy [ICSDP] showing that seven in 10 Canadians want marijuana either decriminalized or legalized.

“There is a serious danger that the repetition of false claims, especially by our country's leaders, will lead to policies that further put our young at risk,” the ICSDP said in a press release.

Harper has been staunchly against the legalization of marijuana — and even medical marijuana hasn't been something the Harper government has been very fond of. Under Canada's current medical marijuana laws, patients must obtain prescription cannabis from federally licensed producers, generally through the mail. There are currently only 26 licensed producers listed on Health Canada's website.

“It's policy based not on any logic or reason. It's based on ideology. They're anti-cannabis,” says Mark Hauk, founder of the Saskatchewan Compassion Club. “I would say that Harper is once again, very carefully, cherry-picking from the information coming from these studies. There is plenty being done today in terms of studying medical benefits of cannabis. Unfortunately, he chooses only to focus on what he thinks are the long-term harmful effects.”

Hauk himself has been affected by the Harper government's unprogressive drug policies. The Saskatchewan Compassion Club, a medical marijuana dispensary, was sent a “cease and desist” letter from Health Canada, threatening RCMP action if he doesn’t shut down. Hauk is choosing to remain open, despite federal legislation saying that he shouldn't be.

“How can we [continue to operate]? The simple answer to that is that the law is bad. Certain municipalities allow dispensaries like this to exist because they believe it is right to do so for the people in the community,” says Hauk. “There's a big problem with the system, and therein lies why people like myself and the 240 other compassion clubs across Canada can exist. The system the Conservatives are pushing is one that is completely unreasonable.”

When asked about Harper's recent condemnation of marijuana, Hauk's response is almost optimistic.

“I almost like to hear him say these things — when he makes completely asinine statements, I have to smile because I think he's digging his own grave,” says Hauk. “The experts, not affiliated with any political party, have come out firing. These statements that he's making about cannabis are categorically false.”

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