The bishops’ statement came one day before the Liberal government announced the introduction April 13 in the House of Commons of the Cannabis Act, which will eventually “legalize, regulate and restrict access” to marijuana.
“From the standpoint of public health, not only does this course of action appear to be unwise, it is potentially dangerous,” said the statement signed by the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), Bishop Douglas Crosby of Hamilton. “The very significant health risks associated with the use of cannabis are widely recognized, particularly in young people.”
In addition to all the risks associated with tobacco smoke, such as heart attack, stroke and cancers, marijuana is associated with a heightened risk in “a multitude of psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia,” the statement said. It also described marijuana as a “gateway drug” that often leads to the use of more powerful illegal drugs.
“At a time when so many resources are already being spent to discourage recreational tobacco use, it is difficult to comprehend the disregard for public safety entailed in legalizing marijuana, which is arguably much more dangerous,” the bishops’ statement said.
The government is hoping to have the legislation passed by July 1, 2018. It is also promising to beef up penalties for those who sell cannabis to those under 18 and to tighten up impaired driving laws.
“Youth are at the centre of the effort,” Minister Philpott said at a news conference that also included Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and the Parliamentary Secretary of the Minister of Justice Bill Blair. Philpott acknowledged the health risks of cannabis to those whose brains are still developing and noted the government already had a public education investment of more than $9 million to discourage marijuana use in its recent budget.
Goodale said if the objective of the existing laws was to “keep cannabis out of the hands of minors” and to “stop organized crime,” they have been an “abject failure.”
Canadian teenagers are among the heaviest marijuana users in the western world, he said. At the same time “criminals pocket about $7 to $8 billion in profits.”
The proposed legislation “will do a better job of protecting our kids and fighting organized crime,” he said.
Blair, Toronto’s former chief of police, said the legislation will be directed “toward more healthful, safer and more socially responsible use,” so the decision to sell or not to sell is not “being made by some gangster in a stairwell.”
The legislation will beef up penalties for impaired driving and include mandatory testing, even without a reasonable suspicion on the part of police. Wilson-Raybould said she believes the mandatory testing will pass constitutional challenge.
The bishops included concern about alcohol abuse in their statement, calling it the most common form of “chemical addiction” that costs society an estimated $14.6 billion a year.
The bishops also tackled Canada’s “serious substance abuse crisis,” particularly the “alarming” increase in deaths due to overdoses on new forms of opioids. It pointed to the underlying causes, such as poverty, family breakdown, violence and underlying mental illness.
The bishops also noted the high rates of abuse in indigenous communities due to intergenerational trauma.
The CCCB statement opposes “harm reduction” models such as needle exchange programs, or “safe” injection sites, quoting Pope Francis, who said “the problem of drug use is not solved with drugs.”
“Governments have a moral responsibility to ensure that, in addressing this crisis, communities be equipped with universally accessible and up-to-date rehabilitation methods and recovery programs,” the bishops said.
The bishops had several recommendations, including urging the government to tighten regulation of opioid manufacturing and improved pain management training for physicians and care providers.
The bishops concluded their statement with Jesus’ role in healing. “Persons who suffer from addiction should take comfort in the knowledge that Jesus wishes them to be well and that the Lord continues to pour forth his grace and blessings upon us.”
The full statement is available at the CCCB.ca website.