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Legal cannabis

Making space for safe use in Newfoundland and Labrador

By Rachel Howells and Bethany Torraville

Non-medical cannabis has been legal in Canada for five years now.

But what impact has it had on the health and safety of Newfoundland and Labrador?

An illustration of various images and individuals that visually represents ideas participants offered during the CHERP conference.
The discussions from the CHERP symposium were captured in this visual graphic that highlights the many ideas participants shared.
Photo: Submitted

Memorial University’s Cannabis Health Evaluation and Research Partnership (CHERP) team held a symposium at Memorial’s Signal Hill Campus on March 22, titled Evidence-to-Policy.

The purpose of the day-long event was to break down research findings and engage with the public and stakeholder groups to discuss cannabis policy implications.

CHERP is a group of researchers and students from various faculties within Memorial University that shares the primary goal of determining how cannabis legalization has affected health and safety in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Researchers, policy-makers, educators, health-care professionals, law enforcement professionals, members of the cannabis industry, students, and individuals with lived/living experiences attended the symposium.

The result?

Voices from varying backgrounds created a holistic picture of cannabis public health and safety needs in the province.

A group photo of 19 people involved in the CHERP research and DECYDE launch.
The CHERP team of researchers, students, research assistants and staff.
Photo: Submitted

Tom Osborne, minister, Health and Community Services, kicked off the day with opening remarks and by sharing his support for the team’s research efforts.

Themed sessions included short presentations that highlighted research findings and personal reflections from stakeholders or people with lived or living experiences. Participants then engaged in roundtable discussions to identify the implications of the research.

Some of the topics the participants explored include retail cannabis; places of consumption; the impact of legalization on medical cannabis use; public education and stigma; and youth substance and education.

CHERP logo

The CHERP team works to center diverse perspectives and lived/living experiences in the narrative of cannabis use and knowledge.

The team’s research is informed by three advisory panels, including stakeholders, citizens and youth, who help to identify and address public health and safety needs with respect to cannabis policy in the province.

“We can’t capture the overall impact of cannabis legalization without including diverse perspectives in the conversation,” said Dr. Jennifer Donnan, a CHERP principal investigator.

Throughout the day, many people said improvements in the accessibility of cannabis information, especially in relation to effects and dosing, medical uses, and detailed product information, is important and doing so will reduce cannabis stigma.

In particular, the legalization of non-medical cannabis has impacted how people make decisions about cannabis for medical purposes: more people are now willing to experiment with cannabis, but information to inform medical decisions is lacking.

For example, many people experiment with products and doses without ever seeking the advice of a health-care professional.

“We see the policy, but the reality on the ground is saying something else.” — Dr. Maisam Najafizada

Participants were eager to see expanded access to health-care involvement to support patients in their decisions, as well.

One of CHERPs principal investigators, Dr. Maisam Najafizada, spoke of some of the gaps in the province’s current approaches to cannabis policy, specifically regarding places of cannabis consumption.

“We see the policy, but the reality on the ground is saying something else,” said Dr. Najafizada. “The question we need to ask is: How do we serve both cannabis consumers, so that they have safe spaces to consume cannabis, and non-consumers, so that they are safe from second-hand smoke?”

Discussions also highlighted a clear need for improved drug education, specifically for youth.

Attendees were open and excited about a harm reduction approach that provides youth with unbiased information, so they can make safe choices.

DECYDE launch

In the afternoon, the group officially launched the Drug Education Centred on Youth Decision Empowerment (DECYDE) strategy.

The strategy was created in response to identified gaps in drug education in the province for school-aged youth and a desire for an education strategy that is interactive, evidence-informed, non-judgmental and values harm reduction principles.

“Protecting youths’ health and safety is our primary goal, so our DECYDE strategy is focused on empowering youth to make safe and informed choices,” said Dr. Lisa Bishop, the project’s principal investigator and a professor at Memorial’s School of Pharmacy.

DECYDE includes lesson plans and interactive activities aligned with the Department of Education’s curriculum outcomes, as well as teacher resources and training, education through social media, and parent/guardian resources.

“Co-creation of content and materials is the key to our strategy’s success,” Dr. Bishop said.

The researchers and partners share a common goal of promoting harm reduction education to support youth and value the collaborative, youth-engaged approach of DECYDE.

Funding from Health Canada’s Substance Use and Addiction Program, the Janeway Foundation, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador will help further the team’s development of the materials and their evaluation.

“We want to ensure that all Canadians, especially children and youth, understand the health risks associated with cannabis use,” said Carolyn Bennett, minister, Mental Health and Addictions, and associate minister, Health. “Today’s investment will help provide youth with the tools they need to make the most informed decisions possible and is a key part of our government’s public health and safety approach to the legalization of cannabis in Canada.”

Next steps

The CHERP team will provide written communication on insights gained from the symposium at both a public and policy-maker level.

“While this cannabis policy evaluation project is coming to a close, our team has built up plenty of momentum for new cannabis-related research and evaluation projects,” said Dr. Donnan.

More information about CHERP’s research can be found on their Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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