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Health Canada’s cannabis education campaign “perpetuates demonization of cannabis,” says activist

Health Canada has recently launched a national cannabis education campaign.  The campaign called Pursue your Passion, made an appearance at Folk on the Rocks last weekend. Two teams are touring around to festivals and events across Canada, with the aim of helping youth discover new passions or hobbies by experimenting with different activities, such as rock climbing, at their booth.

Moose FM spoke with Canadian cannabis rights activist Jodie Emery about her concerns about the campaign.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What are your thoughts on Health Canada’s cannabis education campaign?

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“It’s always good to encourage young people to live healthy, active lifestyles. But I worry about the demonization of cannabis as being something extremely dangerous when a lot of young people and children are medical marijuana patients themselves and when a lot of young people at that age are on pharmaceutical drugs and mind-altering psycho-pharmaceuticals like Ritalin and other drugs. So I’m not opposed to encouraging young people to lead healthy, active lifestyles, but we need to look at the actual risks involved in the activities being discussed. Across Canada, thousands of young people and teenagers are injured in sports. Through football, hockey, cheerleading, and they actually suffer brain damage and serious physical health impacts from sports and physical activity. So I’m not saying we need to ban young people from being allowed to take part in sports, but you don’t see Health Canada on an education campaign telling parents that football and cheerleading will hurt their children.
I’m concerned that this messaging campaign perpetuates the stigma and demonization of cannabis when it’s truly a far safer choice than pharmaceutical drugs, alcohol, and even sports, all of which young people and teenagers are engaged in.”

What type of information would you want people to know then, if you had a say in what kind of cannabis education Canadians would be receiving from their government?

“The best information for young people is about harm reduction. So if they’re talking about cannabis, they should be talking about how it’s an adult thing to do, but, similar to alcohol, which is an adult thing to do, young people do use it. So we need to talk about the safest ways to use it, being open and honest, talking with parents or teachers or educators about the desire or the use of cannabis, but not to demonize it. For me, this is very important, because in high school, I was a leadership student who was completely against marijuana. Against drinking and drugs and anything like that. And I believed what I was told about marijuana being dangerous, and addictive and causing brain damage and schizophrenia. So when my friends started using cannabis, I gave them a very hard time about it. But then I realized they were actually the smartest students in school. Creative, informed, in fact, smarter than the average students. So I questioned what I had been told by the school, and by authorities, and I didn’t believe them. Because when I used cannabis and realized I was being lied to about how dangerous cannabis is, I questioned the true warnings about cocaine and other hard drugs. So, unfortunately, because of government and misinformation about cannabis, I then used cocaine, and I had trouble with it, and I needed help. And that’s because the government lied about cannabis being dangerous.

When young people are told by government ‘marijuana’s very dangerous, stay away’ and then the government says ‘cocaine and heroin are also dangerous, stay away,’ young people can find the evidence that cannabis is not as dangerous as government says. So then they question what they’ve been told about other things. And that is where real trouble begins.

So the best information and education campaign for young people about cannabis and drugs is harm reduction and talking about a safer choice. So if young people are going to go out to a party, and there’s going to be alcohol or pharmaceutical drugs, or if they’re huffing gas or paint, we need to talk about the safer choice. So young people and teens, if you’re going to go to a party, the safest choice would be cannabis.  The best choice of all would be none, perhaps. But we have to talk about cannabis for what it really is, rather than the old fear mongering that does a disservice to the young people we’re trying to protect.”

Do you think that there are any risks associated with cannabis use that the government is right to be warning people about, or should be trying to warn people about?

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“If a young person has a family member who has schizophrenia, that is confirmed and diagnosed and being treated, there is a very, very small likelihood of bringing on the onset earlier.”

But that’s a small percentage of the population, Emery says. Health Canada says 1 percent of Canadians are affected by schizophrenia.

“So the risk of young people being harmed by cannabis isn’t nearly as high as they talk about. And again, young people are being harmed by antidepressants, psychotropic drugs Ritalin, amphetamines. So pharmaceutical drugs are actually hurting young people right now, cannabis does not. It really should be promoted as a healthier alternative.”

Emery says that, as a victim of sexual assault herself, she is concerned about the prevalence of alcohol-related sexual assaults among youth. Alcohol is the most commonly used drug in drug-facilitated sexual assaults, according to the Sexual Assault Centre Hamilton Area (SACHA).

“Alcohol is extremely dangerous, and so many young people use it. If we’re going to talk about drugs with teens, we have to promote the safer choice, so that they have the honest information. The other risks involved are getting arrested. That’s really quite frankly the biggest risk involved with young people using cannabis, is that a criminal record will impact them for the rest of their life. And even if they aren’t charged, just having an interaction with a police officer, for possession shows up in people’s files and you can lose job opportunities, travel opportunities, and so much more. So the greatest risk to young people from cannabis comes from the cannabis law. And to me, that’s far more devastating than a teen using cannabis for antidepressant use. Many teens report that cannabis saved their lives. That it’s the safest antidepressant they could use and that choice shouldn’t be demonized. My hope is that cannabis information will be honest and fact-based, rather than fearful and dishonest, quite frankly.”

Now that legalization is happening, and particularly in Ontario where they just announced they’re going to privatize marijuana sales, what are your thoughts? Is this what you had hoped for in your years of activism?

“As someone who has spent almost 15 years campaigning for legalization, the headlines in the news are great because it’s inspiring a lot of other jurisdictions and countries to also reform their laws. But as an expert in cannabis, and a friend of many lawyers, we’re looking at the federal legislation, the provincial regulations and municipal regulations, and finding it’s all new prohibition. So many restrictions, limitations, tough punishments, and penalties – it’s prohibition by a new name, in many respects. But, even though the government has been fighting cannabis for decades, they’ve been losing the battle. Because people want cannabis, they want it for medicine, they want it for recreation, and they get it, no matter what the laws are. The only problem is that taxpayers are forced to pay for a never-ending war on peaceful people. So my concern right now is that governments are using legalization as a way to newly criminalize an re-prohibit cannabis, with new laws and punishments. That’s not the way we’re supposed to be going.

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The number one reason to legalize cannabis is to stop the civil liberties violations caused by the law. And the second reason is to allow the existing industry  – the expertise and the farmers, and the generational knowledge. We need to legalize the existing industry because that’s what “legalize it” means. Not “legalize a new government bureaucracy and factory-farmed cannabis, in giant facilities by big businessmen”.

We should be using cannabis legalization for job creation and innovation where entrepreneurs and small business owners can create all sorts of new products and business models. But if the governments across Canada look to restrict and limit and punish the cannabis industry, that’s the same prohibition as before, just with a new name. And we should really be questioning how hundreds of millions of tax dollars are being spent on marijuana law enforcement, and marijuana information campaigns that are not honest. That money would be much better spent building houses, improving education and healthcare, and doing more to help people, rather than to punish them and scare them about something that’s truly the safer choice.”

Anything else?

“There’s a big campaign right now called, and it’s a cannabis amnesty campaign being organized by lawyers and advocates like myself who are calling on the federal government to provide amnesty or pardons for possession, at the least. Millions of Canadians over decades have got a criminal record for cannabis. And again, this prevents job opportunities and travel. Those criminal records are hurting Canadians, and the cannabis amnesty campaign is asking that our own pot-smoking prime minister Trudeau, if he would please provide amnesty for at least possession, but quite frankly, in the United States and other areas, they’re looking at amnesty for all cannabis criminals who are peaceful, non-violent people. So myself, and many others who have criminal records or dispensaries, trafficking charges, the government still says trafficking is bad, traffickers can’t be given amnesty.

But I think it would be extremely unfair for white businessmen and white police officers and white politicians to run the cannabis industry after they spent decades and billions of tax dollars going after brown and black and Indigenous and marginalized citizens for doing the very same thing that these governments are now planning to do themselves. We need equality, fairness and justice. Otherwise, legalization is just a cash grab for big business and big government.”

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