Dana Larsen: Cannabis guidelines driving us to drink

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      Canada's health and addiction organizations have released new guidelines for cannabis users. Unfortunately their advice is biased against cannabis, and will promote heavier use of the more dangerous drug alcohol.

      Canada's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health recently joined the Centre on Substance Abuse and Addiction to release new "Lower-Risk Cannabis Use Guidelines", which claim to teach people how to use cannabis safely and responsibly. A few years back, they put out similar guidelines for alcohol use.

      When we compare their cannabis guidelines with their alcohol guidelines, we see that these health organizations are strangely downplaying the risks of alcohol while exaggerating the risks of cannabis.

      The result of this skewed information will be to encourage more people to use alcohol, instead of the safer alternative, cannabis.

      Cannabis harms versus alcohol harms

      The cannabis recommendations begin with a lengthy list of all the harms they claim cannabis use can cause. They list "cognitive, psychomotor and memory impairments; hallucinations and impaired perception; impaired driving and injuries (including fatalities); mental health problems (including psychosis); dependence; pulmonary/bronchial problems; and reproductive problems".

      That sounds pretty serious! It seems exaggerated to me, but I guess it's better to err on the side of caution.

      Besides, I expected that their alcohol guidelines would really get into detail on all the health and social harms caused by drinking booze.

      Umm, no. With alcohol, they just vaguely say "alcohol can harm the way the body and brain develop." And that's it!

      They don't get into any details about how alcohol use is tied to many kinds of cancer, mental health problems, psychosis, hallucinations, fetal alcohol disorders, liver damage, increased injuries, domestic violence, sexual assault, traffic fatalities, reproductive problems, and a host of other health and social risks.

      On their cannabis pamphlet, the list of potential harms is repeated a few times. On the alcohol pamphlet, the risks get half a sentence, and that's it.

      Abstinence versus regular use

      Let's move on to the actual recommendations. Surely they recognize that cannabis use is safer than alcohol?

      Sadly, it's quite the opposite. Their first recommendation on cannabis use is "abstinence". They recommend just saying no and never using cannabis as the only way to protect yourself from any potential harms.

      According to these "health experts", even a small amount of cannabis is harmful, and should be avoided entirely. But when it comes to booze, the word "abstain" is never used or even suggested!

      Sure, they recommend no drinking while pregnant or doing something complicated like driving, but otherwise they never even mention the idea of a booze-free lifestyle. They don't even recommend that minors should abstain from alcohol!

      It's as if they think alcohol is an inevitable part of life, while cannabis is a dangerous drug to be avoided. That's just bad advice.

      Health benefits and medicine

      The alcohol flyer even mentions that "drinking may provide health benefits for certain groups of people", something the cannabis flyer neglects to say.

      Cannabis is a legally recognized medicine in Canada, currently being recommended by doctors for a wide range of therapeutic purposes. Yet the flyer makes no mention of any medicinal or health benefits of cannabis, saying only that "these recommendations are mainly aimed at non-medical cannabis use."

      Why does the alcohol flyer explain that booze "may provide health benefits" but the cannabis flyer does not? Is this really the message Canada's health agencies are trying to send?

      Alcohol's just fine for teens?

      The second recommendation for safe cannabis use is abstinence again! This time for minors and young adults. They explain how the brain is still developing during your early 20s, and say that it's best to "delay taking up cannabis use until later in life".

      With alcohol, they give no such advice. With teens and booze, they don't recommend waiting until "later in life" at all! They just say that "teens should speak with their parents about drinking.

      If they choose to drink, "they should do so under parental guidance; never more than 1-2 drinks at a time, and never more than 1-2 times per week." (They don't recommend that teens talk to their parents about their cannabis use either, apparently that discussion is only to be held about alcohol.)

      Note that this drinking advice is specifically for underage teens. If you're in your "late teens to age 24" they just say you shouldn't exceed the daily and weekly limits.

      To be clear, nowhere on the "Low Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines" pamphlet do these health agencies specifically recommend that minors abstain from alcohol. They offer no minimum age below which alcohol should not be consumed.

      Instead, Canada's health and drug agencies recommend that underage teens can drink booze a few times a week, and that adult teens can chug 15 drinks a week, and that's fine.

      But with cannabis, minors and young adults should always abstain, and there's no call for a family discussion?

      Another version of their alcohol guidelines does recommend that minors should delay drinking, but only until age 17!

      It says "If you are a child or youth, you should delay drinking until your late teens." Well the "late teens" begins at 17, so they're telling us that it's OK to have a few drinks a week when you're still in Grade 11, but if you wait until a year after graduating from college to try a puff of cannabis, then you've still started up too soon? This is absurd advice to be giving.

      Finally, with cannabis, they say that if you insist on using it, it's best to use cannabis only once a week. With alcohol, they say three drinks a day is fine, but suggest having "non-drinking days every week." So they're telling people that drinking alcohol five to six days a week is just fine, but using cannabis more than once a week is a serious problem? Once again, this is just awful advice.

      Moderation is good, bad advice is dangerous

      While encouraging moderation and responsible use towards cannabis is commendable, these guidelines are clearly biased towards alcohol, an approach that is not based in science or best practices.

      Messaging around cannabis, alcohol and drug use can encourage abstinence and moderation, and that's not a problem. But these guidelines also need to include a reality check, and acknowledge that if anyone is going to choose to use a psychoactive substance, cannabis is by far the safest and most responsible choice.

      Treating cannabis as a dangerous and deviant, while treating alcohol as normal and beneficial, is just bad policy and bad advice.