Legal marijuana plan needs public health focus: Ottawa psychiatrist

Legal marijuana plan needs public health focus: Ottawa psychiatrist

With the federal government set to introduce Thursday its plans to make marijuana legal, a psychiatrist with the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre hopes the legislation will have a meaningful public health component to address the potentially harmful effects of smoking pot.

Dr. Gail Beck treats patients between the ages 16 and 18 as the clinical director of the youth program at the Royal, and she's concerned about the impact marijuana has on the mental health of young people.

"We see many young people who are daily users and multiple times a day users," she told host Hallie Cotnam on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

"We also see many people who use it only on weekends, but who use it to excess on weekends. So cannabis can also be intoxicating, and so that's a concern, because that has some impacts. But regular daily use also has impacts on the developing brain."

Research has shown that cannabis use can cause cognitive dysfunction, memory loss, and problem-solving and decision-making difficulties, according to Beck.

"Research — very consistently repeated — has shown that when young people have those symptoms of cognitive dysfunction, unlike adults, for whom those symptoms may resolve after a few weeks of discontinued use, that doesn't happen for young people," she said. 

"We're certainly talking about the psychotic illnesses — so schizophrenia. But we're also talking about anxiety and depression. And I think most people are aware that acute intoxication with cannabis can cause anxiety, depression, paranoia, and psychosis," Beck added.

'Need to be very educational'

She said she will be watching the federal government's marijuana legalization plan closely for public health and awareness initiatives.

"A lot of people start by saying that they feel marijuana is harmless," she said. "So we really need to be very educational about that. And that's why we hope that in this legislation there is embedded a plan for a very robust public health education program."

She said cannabis use among Canadian youth between the ages of 16 and 24 is twice as high compared to their counterparts in other countries, so awareness is crucial. Driving while high is also a concern for Beck.

While she acknowledges some parents and cannabis users may accuse her of "fearmongering" when she brings up mental health concerns, she points to the existence of evidence-based findings, and stresses that she isn't opposed to marijuana legalization.

"It makes sense for us to legalize and regulate," she said.