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Not all marijuana users should be treated the same way, study says

By admin | June 17, 2010

By Todd Coyne, Vancouver Sun

June 11, 2010

A public health drive aimed at educating heavy marijuana users most likely to run into problems with the drug should replace the current one-size-fits-all criminalization of all users, says a new Canadian study.

“We’re arguing for a differentiated approach that recognizes that some people, but only some, a minority, have problems from their cannabis use and we understand now a lot better what their characteristics and determinants are while the large proportion of users are fairly problem free,” said Simon Fraser University Health Sciences professor Benedikt Fischer, who directed the study.

He was hesitant to call the study an argument for marijuana legalization, however, saying that was not what he and his researchers from the Universite de Montreal and Toronto’s Centre for Addictions and Mental Health set out to do.

“You could still do public health education and criminalize the hell out of people. You could theoretically do that, but it just makes no sense because they are competing paradigms,” Fischer said.

Among the interventions suggested in the study are health-oriented peer groups for school-age children, monitoring programs to identify young, frequent users and selective laws that target marijuana use only in cases –such as driving under the influence — where it is proven to affect public health.

The study divided 1,303 Canadian cannabis users into four categories based on their frequency of use, age of first use and reason for use — social or medical.

It determined that the majority use the drug infrequently and appear to experience no major health risks as a result.

Those who began using later in life and use infrequently have the least risk of negative impacts on their health, while those who began using before age 16 and continue to use daily or near-daily have the highest health risks.

These risks include using other illicit drugs, driving while intoxicated, substance abuse problems and negative effects on their physical and mental health.

“There is therefore a pressing need to target interventions at this subpopulation of users,” Fischer noted in his report.

Fischer said that Canada’s current model of using police as educators about the risks of cannabis use “makes absolutely no sense.”

Police are not public health officials and not very knowledgeable in matters of public health or substance use, he said, ” just the way we wouldn’t use nurses or orderlies to prosecute criminals. That’s just not the professional activity these people are equipped and trained for.”

Tom Stamatakis, president of the B.C. Police Association and a 22-year veteran with the Vancouver police department, agreed police shouldn’t be the only educators on the realities of marijuana use, but said they should be one voice of many in the discussion.

“We’re in the trenches with these people every day, 24/7,” he said, noting that he hadn’t read the study.

“We have a perspective to offer, particularly when you have academics and researchers coming at it from this academic perspective making some pretty broad statements in terms of where this should go without considering all the implications.”

The findings of the study, published in the International Journal of Methods in Psychiatric Research, are now being used by Fischer and his group of researchers to try to determine effective short-term health interventions for young and frequent marijuana users.

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