Oct. 17, 2017

Making Informed Decisions

Cumming School experts help develop Alberta’s approach to cannabis legalization
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In less than a year, recreational cannabis use will be legal in Canada.

Tasked with adapting the new legislation, which comes into effect October 17, 2018, the Government of Alberta has developed a proposed cannabis framework based on feedback from Albertans as well as stakeholders and partners such as the University of Calgary.

In 2016, UCalgary’s Health Technology Assessment (HTA) Unit was asked to support the Government of Alberta’s cannabis policy development.

“The government needed to respond to the federal decision to legalize cannabis and wanted to do so with the best evidence out there,” says Fiona Clement (PhD’06), director of the HTA Unit. “They came to us because of our reputation — we do good science here — and asked that we complete a systematic review
to support the legislation development.”

Clement and her team, which is made up of physicians, researchers and students, compiled a wide range of evidence on five key topics: the current Canadian context, health harms and effects, medical cannabis, advertising and communication, and experience with legalization. The final report was made public in February 2017 and has been used to develop the Alberta Cannabis Framework, a structure that sets the stage for the legal and responsible use of cannabis by Albertans.

“The report is getting great traction,” boasts Clement, who’s an associate professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences and a member of the O’Brien Insti tute for Public Health. “For us, it’s great to publish it, but to have people read what we’ve written and say, ‘Wow, we really need to be thinking of this,’ is on another level. That’s the kind of thing a policy researcher lives for.”

Clement has also been participating in the provincial government’s roundtable stakeholder series where representatives from various institutes and organizations come together to discuss topics such as the minimum age of purchasing, protecting roads and workplaces, and public consumption. 

“I use the evidence-based information from the HTA Unit’s report as my voice during those talks,” explains Clement. “It’s important to have that type of neutral party during these types of discussions. We’re here to support policy based on strong research.”

In addition to supporting the government, the Cumming School also plays a significant role in educating the public. In May 2017, the O’Brien Institute, in partnership with the Canadian College of Health Leaders, hosted a forum to address the public health implications of cannabis. More than 300 policy experts, patients, leaders in substance use and public health, and members of the general public attended the forum to discuss the impact of legal cannabis use.

“There’s a lot of important work being done in our province around substance use and public health, and we wanted to share some of that work with the general public and the public health community,” says Rebecca Haines-Saah, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences and a member of the O’Brien Institute.

According to Haines-Saah, who played a large role in organizing the event, the forum aimed to set the tone for cannabis policy in Alberta.

“We needed to elevate dialogue through the lens of public health, and the forum allowed us to do that,” Haines-Saah explains. “With a public health approach, the focus is not so much on individual-level risks and harms, but on creating population-level policies and interventions to prevent the potential for problems associated with cannabis use. Beyond health, there’s also an emphasis on how policies that criminalize cannabis have been harmful, discriminatory and have ultimately failed to ‘protect’ people from use.”

As things move forward, Clement and Haines-Saah believe that the CSM’s role will stay the same. “The government is going to have a lot of ongoing questions, and we have strong data and analytic capacity,” says Clement. “The partnership we have with Alberta Health enables us to respond quickly as issues emerge.”

Alberta rose

Alberta rose

Alberta Cannabis Framework at a glance

  • After legalization, 18 will be the proposed minimum age to purchase cannabis — the same age limit for alcohol and tobacco.
  • If you’re an adult, you’ll be able to possess up to 30 grams of dried cannabis in public.
  • Cannabis consumption will be allowed in homes and in some public spaces where smoking tobacco is allowed, but restricted in places where kids tend to be.
  • You’ll be able to grow up to four cannabis plants in your home, but not outdoors where kids can potentially access them.
  • No cannabis use will be allowed in vehicles, even by passengers. Like alcohol, cannabis will need to be secured away from drivers and passengers. Additional rules will be put in place to prevent people from driving under the influence.
  • The Government of Alberta will be working with labour groups and employers to ensure worksites are kept safe.
  • In the beginning, there will be no online sales in Alberta.  However, this is something the provincial government will look at in the near future.
  • Licensed growers across Canada will be required to meet federal quality and safety standards. Growers will sell cannabis to a government owned and operated distributor who will ship safe products to retail outlets. Retail stores will have to follow strict rules such as special staff training, hours of operation, and more.

Visit alberta.ca/cannabis for more information.