According to the latest (2012) Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey, some 40% of Canadians have consumed cannabis in their lifetime, though only 10% of Canadians note that they’ve consumed cannabis in the past year. The survey also reveals that about 90% of Canadians have consumed alcohol in their lifetime, and nearly 80% have done so in the past year. Remarkably, Canadians admit that their first drug or alcohol experience occurred at an early age — around 15 or 16 years old.
Unsurprisingly, Canadians are consuming alcohol, a legal substance, at a much greater rate than cannabis, a controlled substance — though cannabis remains the preferred illicit drug choice for the majority of Canadians.
When considering cannabis’ popularity in light of its controlled status, Canadians may wonder if they are justly shielded from harm when alcohol, a substance with similar recreational effects to those of cannabis, is made available (to adults).
Drug and alcohol related harm, as defined by Statistics Canada, falls into nine categories: physical health, friendships and social life, financial position, home life or marriage, work, studies or employment opportunities, legal problems, difficulty learning, and housing problems. Naturally, the overall harm of either substance stems from whether or not intoxication leads to physical, psychological, and social harm to either the user or others.
The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, in its 2014 report, “Alcohol,” contends that in the short term, the negative results of alcohol consumption include intoxication, injury, violence, accidents, spousal abuse, suicide, alcohol toxicity (overdose), and death. Long term effects include alcohol dependence, increased risk of several types of cancer (e.g., cancers of the mouth, throat, liver, breast and digestive track), diabetes, cirrhosis, pancreatitis, low birth weight, and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). In 2011, 56% of all substance abuse related hospital discharges or deaths were due to alcohol abuse.
Although approximately one out of seven Canadians over the age of 12 engage in heavy drinking (defined by Statistics Canada as five or more drinks on one occasion), only some 3% of the Canadian population age 15 and older abused or were dependent on alcohol in the past year. Though Canadians are seemingly careful in avoiding alcohol abuse, even recommend quantities of recreational consumption can lead to fatalities that aren’t directly related to personal health issues. A notorious impact of alcohol consumption continues to be motor vehicle fatalities — in 2010, about 30% of all motor vehicle deaths were related to drinking and driving.
In contrast, cannabis consumption and abuse leads to far fewer deaths (if any). Still there is much to be wary of, including increasing vehicle fatality rates and health complications due to prolonged consumption. The Canadian Medical Association’s 2014 report, “The Health Risks and Harms Associated with the Use of Marijuana,” notes that initial cannabis consumption can lead to drowsiness, sedation, blurred vision, photophobia, difficulty breathing, and vomiting — though the report contends that due to the low acute toxicity of cannabis, no deaths directly due to use have been reported.
The serious, psychological effects of cannabis consumption include anxiety, panic, depression, paranoia or psychosis. Physiologically, cannabis consumers can expect slower reaction times, and impaired motor coordination and concentration. Other major health risks are related to smoking cannabis products, which may be more harmful than tobacco, as it often involves unfiltered smoke and longer inhalation. Chronic cannabis users will often experience shortness of breath after exercise, coughing, and chest tightness, and continual consumption may increase the risk of chronic lung disease and lung cancer.
The extraneous health impacts of cannabis may not compare to the often more extreme results of alcohol consumption, but cannabis use in situations where life is at stake leads to similar outcomes as alcohol use, though on a lesser scale. In a decade of motor vehicle crashes (up to 2010) some 20 000 Canadians died — according to drug testing within six hours of crashes, some 33% of those drivers tested positive for one or more psychoactive drug.
Seemingly, Canadians are suffering more because of their alcohol related habits, rather than cannabis related habits. However, it is important to remember that because Canadians consume alcohol more than cannabis, the adverse impacts of alcohol are easily seen – though the nature of cannabis has little to offer in the way of harm to an individual’s health. Rather, cannabis, like alcohol, ought to be consumed with caution when one is driving. Under ideal conditions, neither substance ought to cause harm — it is a consumer’s judgment of appropriate use that leads to harm.