Summit – Rolling out legal cannabis
Headshot of alumnus Basil Kelly

Rolling out legal cannabis

WORDS BY PETER GLENN
Photos by Christina Riches, Leonora André

“As a society, our current view of what cannabis is, is extremely narrow and I think that it is high time we allow this plant to show us all of the benefits that she has to offer.”

Basil Kelly

Manager of licensed producer relations at Natural Health Services

Alumnus Basil Kelly is blazing a trail through the world of medical cannabis. He is the manager of licensed producer relations at Natural Health Services (NHS), a cannabinoid medical clinic assisting patients in need of access to medical cannabis.

Kelly’s experience in the nascent industry has been “overwhelmingly positive,” describing those at its roots as having “managed to preserve the quality of open-mindedness and the spirit of teamwork and inclusion that I have always found to be present among cannabis people.”

As an employee of NHS almost since its inception in 2015, Kelly’s work has been “vast and varied,” beginning as a bud genius helping to guide and educate patients new to cannabis.

“Often, for a new patient, having an experienced individual to lean on can make all of the difference in the world for successful treatment,” he says. “These days my main focus is working in tandem with Canada's licensed producers to help them offer the best service and medicine, to not only our patients, but all Canadian medical cannabis patients.”

With the legalization of recreational pot, Kelly, who is also co-host of The Cannabis Show podcast found on YouTube, predicts the medical cannabis industry will grow and improve. As primarily recreational users are free to light up, more purely medical users, he believes, will seek treatment and the medical industry will be in a better position to help them.

Ultimately, he would like to see a revolution in how cannabis is perceived.

“I want people to know that cannabis is not just about getting high and that the medical potential of this plant has barely had its surface scratched. As a society, our current view of what cannabis is, is extremely narrow and I think that it is high time we allow this plant to show us all of the benefits that she has to offer.”

While a general studies student at Mount Royal University from 2002 to 2005, Kelly was a volleyball player for the Cougars. In accordance with the standards set out in Cougars’ Student-Athletes Handbook , which state, “The use of illegal drugs by any intercollegiate athlete will not be permitted and will result in immediate dismissal from the athletic program along with written notification to the athlete’s parents or guardians,” Kelly says he did not use cannabis for most of the year.

“I did, however, consume cannabis (at other times) for many of the same reasons that I consume it today,” he recalls. “Cannabis helped me deal with a broad range of issues, from social anxiety to focusing my attention.”

Bud out

Visions of pot smoke wafting out of dorm rooms at Mount Royal University have proven a pipe dream, despite the legalization of marijuana effective Oct. 17.

Mount Royal has been preparing for months, and while it has not been easy anticipating the decisions of various levels of government, the University is focusing on education and harm-reduction strategies.

According to Statistics Canada’s Canadian Community Health Survey in 2012, 34.6 per cent of Canadian males and 23.4 per cent of females aged 15 to 24 reported using cannabis in the past year.

While a majority of Canadians support legalization and the federal Liberals won their majority government with legalization featured on their platform, there are pockets of resistance when it comes to consumption. Bow Valley College, for example, was given an award in May by the non-smoking advocacy group Action on Smoking and Health for new rules that ban the smoking of anything, including cannabis, on campus. The University of Regina also banned smoking of all kinds on its campus. The City of Calgary bylaw allows council to approve designated areas where cannabis can be smoked. To date, there are no proposed consumption areas.

As the province prepares to offer 300 different cannabis products to licensed retailers, the Alberta government is intent on keeping cannabis away from children, promoting health, maintaining respect for public space and reducing the illegal market, said Kathleen Ganley, minister of justice, during a March panel discussion at Mount Royal organized by the students’ association.

”There will be upsides and downsides, benefits and challenges that will arise,” Ganley said. “Ultimately, the present federal government ran on a clear platform of legalization and it’s incumbent on us (other levels of government) to implement it. Democracy is the will of the people. The people, the voters, have spoken and we’ll be ready to go.”

Ganley also pointed out that legalization means Albertans over the age of 18 will be allowed to possess up to 30 grams of legally produced cannabis in public and will no longer face minor possession charges in the criminal justice system.

The minister said the province is looking at the federal legislation as a beginning, not an end.

“We’re prepared to adjust going forward. It’s an interesting policy file; it’s not often you see something built brand new. There could be changes due to things we haven’t anticipated.”

Close up photo of a cannabis plant

Photo by Basil Kelly

Smoking policy updated

A cross-campus Mount Royal committee worked through the winter on a revised smoking policy that covers cannabis, and would have allowed use in a few clearly identified designated cannabis smoking areas.

While MRU was gathering feedback on the proposed policy, however, city bylaw changes prohibiting smoking cannabis in public spaces were put forward, despite the fact that the city’s own Engage survey indicated that people wanted to be able to consume in selected public spaces. Interestingly, Edmonton adopted a much more liberal set of bylaws that allows for public consumption on sidewalks and in parks.

Then in June, the city moved to allow smoking in designated areas if approved by a public hearing of council. Residents or councillors could start the process for a particular designated smoking area in a community, but as of yet there have been no successful applications.

When it comes to cannabis, the revised MRU smoking policy does not permit use at field schools, sale by businesses on campus or advertising products on campus. The policy emphasizes education and support services. For employees, the Employee Family Assistance Program through Human Resources provides help for addiction and substance abuse. For students, the University provides health promotion events, health awareness and harm-reduction resources through Wellness Services.

“We’re working to arrive at a policy involving a wide variety of groups on campus,” says Steve Fitterer, vice-president, Student Affairs and Campus Life. “This is new territory for everyone ­— governments, universities and post-secondary students. It is to be expected that the process will be fluid. We’re all learning.”

As for disciplining students who show up to class high, MRU policy specialist Tim Harlick says it will remain a matter of discretion. As was the case before legalization, students can be asked to leave a class and behavioural incidents can be referred to the Office of Student Conduct.

Mark Keller, director of Residence Services says for those living on campus, since the current policy bans smoking anything inside, nothing will change. The working group considered whether to allow plants in Residence or whether growing plants in Residence would be allowed and ultimately decided against it.

More generally, Keller says everyone just needs to be aware of the rules for cannabis where they are, recognizing they will differ from municipality to municipality and from province to province.

What’s the harm?

Although cannabis is not risk-free, University of Calgary professor Matthew Hill, PhD, said in a webinar held in July that many of the studies highlighted in media in recent years simply don’t stand up to further examination, citing methodological problems. “The current state of evidence does not support the blanket statement that recreational cannabis use by adolescents causes irreparable brain damage or persistent impairments in cognitive function in the average person.”

Adolescence is generally defined as someone developing from puberty to early adulthood.

Higher risk, he says, may involve use of other substances, life stress and genetics, as well as earlier ages of smoking, ingesting or vaping cannabis with high concentrations of THC.

As it adjusts to legal cannabis, MRU Wellness Services is providing education and assistance to anyone with concerns seeking help, contributing to policy development where necessary and monitoring the impact of behaviour changes through population health data.

“With anything from a harm-reduction perspective, it’s about making sure people have information,” said former MRU Wellness Services health promotion specialist Laura Henderson. “We’ll be making that available and then folks are going to make their own decisions.

“We’re encouraging them to use it safely and buy it safely, which is a great asset of legalization in terms of it being much, much easier for people to safely purchase cannabis, and know what they’re buying.”

Henderson said while cannabis produces positive effects for some, for others it can make existing mental health issues (bipolar disorder for example) worse.

Rachelle McGrath, Healthy Campus Team lead within Wellness Services, says Canada’s Lower-Risk Cannabis Use Guidelines can be a great resource. MRU Wellness also suggests these cannabis tips:

  • don’t use cannabis every day
  • have a plan to get home safely
  • buy cannabis from a safe place
  • be aware of your risk factors (if you are suffering from anxiety and depression, for example)
  • know safe ways to ingest

The goal is to provide the right resources to those who run into problems.

“If a student felt like they were using cannabis to manage other things that were going on with their mental health or their physical health, we’d encourage them to talk to their doctor about that,” says Henderson. “There are other ways to be coping and other supports that we want people to be connected to.”

Higher education at Mount Royal

Marijuana and Mount Royal have a history that goes back to the early 1970s. In response to the federal government’s move toward lessening penalties for possession, a number of stories in support appeared in Journal 3009 (the communication department’s publication, now known as the Calgary Journal. The 3009 came from its room name, Q309.

An editorial in the Nov. 9, 1973, edition of the paper claimed 90 per cent of male students and 70 per cent of female students had used cannabis. It then asked:

“Is marijuana harmful? Is the drug so evil that anyone caught with it should be branded a criminal? If the drug is so harmful, the high percentage of users in this institute of learning should be turning into vegetables and the halls of Mount Royal are being overrun with pothead criminals.

“Marijuana has been popular in North America for over a decade, it has been used for centuries and still there is no proof of any dangers connected with the drug. Maybe it is time we the people demand some satisfaction as to what is going to be done about the situation, before more people are hurt with our ignorant drug laws.”

On Dec. 6, 1974, a two-page spread of stories called Decriminalizing Cannabis backed a move by the then Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau to reduce penalties for possession of pot.

The feature included a story headlined, “Pot: A hazy history,” that described early medicinal use, recreational smoking starting in the 1920s, “Tea Pads,” or marijuana speakeasies in big cities and anti-marijuana laws spreading through the ‘20s and ‘30s.

“Cannabis prices are rising” explained that the price of cannabis in Calgary had been caught in an inflationary spiral. The cost of hashish went up from $70 an ounce to $150 an ounce. Marijuana increased from $250 a kilogram to $350.

In the story “RCMP favour proposed law,” Calgary RCMP Staff Sgt. Dutch Ryba said he favoured moving marijuana from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to the Food and Drugs Act, where it belongs. He said, “It shouldn’t be classified with the narcotics.”

Ryba didn’t favour complete decriminalization, however, because he knew driving while high was dangerous.

Another story profiled a local user and former art student “Dave” who had been busted five times for possession. While his criminal record hindered his job prospects, he remained philosophical.

“I look at the fines and all as a sort of tax on the dope I smoke.”

In 1977, a student reporter interviewed cannabis users: Henry, an artist said, “I like it. Food tastes better after a few joints. Besides, it relaxes you without the need for chemicals.”

Susan, on the other hand, asked, “Why bother legalizing it? It would just cost more.”

Student perspective

The Students’ Association of Mount Royal University (SAMRU) will also key in on harm reduction and education, says Shayla Breen, vice-president, Student Affairs.

“I think there are misconceptions that when students talk to a doctor or a counsellor on campus that it’s reported to your parents and it goes on your transcript. None of that is true,” she says. “We’re here to support students in any choices they want to make. Prohibition has never worked well. Telling a student, ‘No, you can’t have this,’ is not going to work. Instead, we’re saying to students, ‘Abstinence is the safest option, but if you want to use this, that’s your choice and you have the right to exercise that. Here’s some information as well to help you.’ ”

SAMRU was involved in the working group and the creation of the revised smoking policy, and while they are disappointed in the city’s decision to restrict consumption in public because it leaves many students with no place to smoke legal marijuana, they back the harm-reduction strategy.

Breen said some students have asked about medicinal use and that SAMRU will give them the information needed to obtain the necessary approvals.

Headshot of Shayla Breen

Shayla Breen

More questions than answers

You would think that a criminal justice professor who is also a lawyer, once worked for the RCMP’s Coordinated Marijuana Enforcement Team and is a city councillor in Chestermere would know what to expect with legalized pot.

But ask Professor Ritesh Narayan of the Department of Economics, Justice and Policy Studies to look ahead and it becomes clear there are far more questions than answers about even the most basic assumptions regarding legal weed.

As a city councillor, Narayan has witnessed challenges first-hand as the three levels of government try to sort it all out.

“There’s a lot of ambiguity as to who should do what, and who is responsible for what,” he says. “The municipalities are looking up to the provincial government, who are looking up to the federal government — hoping there will be more clarity. I think that will continue.”

While Narayan favours decriminalization of marijuana and other drugs if it comes with an overall focus on health, he is not sure such measures will result in a reduced burden on the legal system. He sees enforcement shifting from criminal trafficking and possession to bylaws and regulations around selling, purchasing and consuming legal weed, and driving and committing crimes while high.

Narayan also predicts a rise in litigation in areas such as second-hand smoke could clog the courts.

“There’s so much that’s going to happen that the system is simply not prepared for what’s to come,” Narayan says.

The biggest challenge he says, will be to charge and successfully prosecute individuals suspected of driving under the influence of cannabis. “There are just too many mitigating factors that could render results collected by police as lacking credibility.”

For those looking to take advantage of the legalization of cannabis, what the experts do agree on is not to take anything for granted. Reach out to established experts for guidance on consumption and openly communicate with doctors and medical authorities about reasons for use.

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