Health, legal implications of weed still murky this 420

Revellers marking 420 this year celebrated the federal bill announced last week that will legalize marijuana — but others say the legal and health implications of the law remain hazy.

Smoking marijuana, like tobacco, can cause cancer, but Dr. Robert Schwartz, a senior scientist at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), said there have been few studies examining the effects of second-hand cannabis smoke.

"As an illegal drug, there hasn't been much research into what's happening with it," said Schwartz, who is also the executive director of the Ontario Tobacco Research Unit. "Public health units around the province have been receiving a lot of complaints, and it's becoming a real issue."

Second-hand marijuana smoke

Although the effects of inhaling marijuana smoke second-hand are less documented, the researcher noted that studies have found 33 carcinogens in cannabis smoke, as well as hydrogen cyanide and ammonia.

The chemical composition is "very similar to that of tobacco smoke," meaning that it could increase someone's risk of heart disease, he said — although a report published in the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in January said that evidence supporting that link is weak.

The report documents the results from an American federal advisory panel on marijuana and public health. One of its primary findings was that there simply hasn't been enough rigorous, peer-tested research into the effects of marijuana on the human body.

More research will be critical as policymakers, like Canada's Liberal government, craft laws governing the drug, it found.

The Liberals tabled two bills April 13 to govern the legalization of marijuana. One will regulate its recreational use, allowing people to possess up to 30 grams of dried or fresh cannabis. The other bill will strengthen penalties for those convicted of drugged driving.

A pre-emptive party

You could have mistakenly thought that the bills — which are expected to allow for legalization by July 2018 — had already passed, given the cloud of smoke masking Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto on Thursday.

"You can tell it's a really good community," a man who called himself Brandon said. "There's very many, many positive vibes. Everyone's really supportive of what's going on and legalization coming to a real thing. It's going to bring a lot of people out of the crime scene."

But those who still have charges hanging over them were less supportive of the legislation.

One of them is Marc Emery — the so-called "Prince of Pot." 

Emery, who's the founder of the Cannabis Culture magazine and the former owner of the Cannabis Culture dispensaries, will be in court Friday to answer to possession and trafficking charges. His wife, Jodie Emery, has a separate hearing after both were arrested at Pearson airport March 8.

Emery said he's disappointed with what's in the federal bills, because they neither include a moratorium on raiding dispensaries or pardoning those with past marijuana convictions.

"I'm content that over the months and years ahead we will reframe this so that they understand we are a culture, we deserve respect and that these laws should be amended."  

He said he hopes his bail conditions will be amended Friday so that he can leave the province. If that happens, he said he plans to go on a speaking tour to push for more liberal laws.