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So marijuana’s (almost) legal. Why it’s still not great for wellness

One-on-one with Shaun Francis

Woman smoking marijuana

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Dosist is a company that sells small, off-white devices it calls “dose pens,” a little larger than a rubber eraser, designed to vaporize precisely controlled amounts of marijuana concentrate. The products come in different formulations, each labeled with monikers like “bliss,” “calm” and “relief.”

The dose pens are not currently legal in Canada, but Dosist’s Canadian president, Josh Campbell, is fighting for the right to sell here, and there’s a palpable buzz around the product. What fascinates me is the company’s trademarked motto: “Delivering health and happiness.”

I question any marketing that so closely ties human happiness to the consumption of a controlled substance. And as the CEO of a company that has helped Canadians manage their health for more than 30 years, the greater worry to me is the way marijuana companies are co-opting the language of wellness. “Increasingly,” the New Yorker magazine noted earlier this year, “the industry is equating conscious marijuana use with sublime good health.”

In fact, as new companies like the high-end cannabis-lifestyle brand, Tokyo Smoke, chart a course for expansion, and Canadian publicly traded marijuana corporations have market caps in the billions, front-line doctors, including those at Medcan, have seen an increase in cannabis-related questions from people who would never fit the stereotype of drug user.

Is marijuana healthy? How much is a safe dose? How frequently is the stuff safe to consume? And does it cause cancer, the same way as that other inhaled addictive substance, tobacco?

It’s tough to get good advice. On the one hand, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control associates marijuana use with anxiety and depression. On the other, respected medical professionals like CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta are singing its praises as an effective treatment for epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and other maladies.

Happily, scientists from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health have led an international effort to create science-based guidelines designed to minimize the health risks of cannabis use.

“Cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug globally, and Canada has among the highest use rates,” notes CAMH Senior Scientist Benedikt Fischer and his coauthors, with between 10 and 15% of adults in the general population using the drug, and between 25 and 30% of adolescents and young adults having used marijuana in the past year.

To distil the guidelines, the authors conclude that the best way to avoid health risks associated with cannabis use is to simply abstain. People under the age of 16 should not use it, they say. In fact, early cannabis use “is associated with a higher risk of dependence and later problem outcomes.”

If you are going to use marijuana, the guidelines caution that levels of the main psychoactive ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol, have been increasing in recent decades—so choose a low-THC cannabis product.

The most common way of consuming marijuana is by smoking it in some manner, but Fischer and his coauthors suggest choosing alternate methods. Combusting marijuana joints, for example, have been associated with respiratory problems, as well as unpleasant conditions like “excessive sputum.” Interestingly, the guidelines conclude that only mixed evidence has linked marijuana use to lung cancer.

Rather than smoking joints, the guidelines suggest using vaporizers, or the use of edibles—the use of Dosist’s product isn’t specifically mentioned. However, employ caution with edibles, says Fischer and his coauthors, because “the delayed onset of psychoactive effect may result in the use of larger than intended doses.”

Also: Limit your frequency. Daily or near-daily use is associated with increased risk of adverse health effects. “Users should be aware and vigilant to keep their own cannabis use—and that of friends, peers or fellow users—occasional at most,” says Fischer and his coauthors, suggesting an upper limit of once a week.

What’s a safe dose? The guidelines don’t say. However, they do suggest avoiding driving for at least six hours afterward, and possibly longer, depending on the person and the quantity consumed. And people with a family history of psychosis, and pregnant women, should avoid using the drug.

The prospect of legal marijuana in Canada has spurred a lot of curiosity among people who otherwise wouldn’t fit the pot user stereotype. Many of these people may be tempted to experiment with marijuana in the coming months.

That’s their personal choice. But I’d caution readers from associating marijuana with wellness. The recreational drug remains one of those substances like alcohol, sugary drinks and fried foods, that may not inflict much harm in moderation, but should certainly not become a habit. In other words, if you are not a user, there is little reason to start.

Shaun Francis is the chief executive officer and chair of Medcan, a Toronto wellness company. His bestselling book, Eat Move Think: The Path to a Healthier, Stronger, Happier You is available from Indigo, Amazon and better bookstores everywhere.

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