Why should you have a conversation?

The federal government’s decision to legalize cannabis across the country has opened the door to a lot of questions many of us haven’t had to consider before. Before cannabis becomes legal in Canada – by July 2018 – Alberta, like all other provinces, will need to establish programs, policies and laws that reflect the views of the people in our province while protecting our communities from any negative consequences.

The Government of Alberta is developing an Alberta Cannabis Framework that will help shape what legalization looks like in Alberta. And we need your input.

We want you to have a conversation about cannabis in Alberta…in your homes and in your communities, with your family, friends and neighbours. This conversation toolkit is designed to help guide your conversations, and provides an opportunity for you to share your ideas, your questions and your concerns with the Government of Alberta.

Your discussions are an important part of the Alberta government’s engagement process. Hopefully the insights you gain through your discussions will be useful to you when answering the survey.

We know that the legalization of cannabis is a difficult and complex issue for many Albertans, so we want to help you get the conversations started.

How to use this guide and host a conversation

Organize a time and place to bring together a group of co-workers, family members, friends, and people in your neighborhood to have a conversation. It could be your home, a boardroom, a community hall or a neighbourhood coffee shop. Choose a place where everyone will be relaxed and comfortable enough to share their thoughts.

Share this guide ahead of time and encourage participants to read through in advance. During the conversation you may wish to read the information out loud, or jump right into answering the questions.

If you’re the conversation leader, your job is to support the conversations, encourage dialogue and keep discussions on topic and moving forward. If you have a large group of participants, divide them into smaller groups. Appoint a person (or more than one person) as a note-taker with directions to record notes on all group discussions.

Your meeting should bring about productive, open and honest conversation

As the person leading the session, you should be prepared and able to:

  • Encourage everyone to listen to each other and try to understand one another’s perspective.
  • Act as a guide and keep conversations within the guidelines.
  • Share background information provided in this toolkit with participants so they can use it to inform their conversations.
  • Encourage and motivate all participants to share their perspectives and ideas – get beyond the initial reactions and try to understand why people feel the way they do.
  • Jump-start or redirect conversation if it stalls, goes off topic or becomes heated.
  • Respect everybody’s contributions. Avoid correcting anyone’s ideas/contributions if you disagree.

This toolkit includes a number of topics to discuss. As a group, you may wish to cover just one, or you may wish to cover all of them.

Topics included within this guide include:

  1. What legalization of cannabis in Canada means for you
  2. What Alberta should focus on with cannabis programs and policies
  3. What age people should be allowed to use cannabis in Alberta
  4. How and where people should be able to purchase cannabis in Alberta
  5. Where people should be allowed to use cannabis in public
  6. How roads and workplaces will be kept safe

Let's get started

  • Please tell us a bit about your conversation group, but please do not include any specifics about a person without their consent. You can keep your description general.
  • For example, are you colleagues? Neighbors? Family members?
  • Do you live in a rural setting or in a city?
  • How many people participated in the conversation?
  • Did you hold your conversations in small groups or as one large group?
  • What were some of the reasons that prompted you to host or hold a conversation?

1: What does legalization of cannabis in Canada mean for you?

The federal government has introduced legislation that will make cannabis, or marijuana, legal in Alberta and the rest of Canada by July 2018. Before that time, all provinces need to establish programs, policies and laws about where and when cannabis can be sold, and how communities will be protected from potential negative consequences like drug-impaired driving.

What do we mean by ‘cannabis’?

Cannabis is the scientific term to describe the group of plants that is commonly known as marijuana. For the purposes of this toolkit, the term ‘cannabis’ includes marijuana (e.g. weed, pot) hashish, hash oil or any other products made from the cannabis plant. It does not include hemp.

When we talk about cannabis use throughout this toolkit, we are talking about using cannabis in its dried form (the kind that is smoked) or cannabis that is mixed or processed into other products such as an edible or a cream (utilized for non-medical purposes).

When we talk about non-medical use, we are talking about recreational use (e.g. for enjoyment, pleasure or amusement) and for spiritual, lifestyle and other similar non-medical purposes.

Cannabis can be used in many ways; some of which may lead to second-hand smoke/vapour. Uses include:

  • Smoke (e.g., a joint, blunt, spliff, pipe, or bong)
  • Vaporize with a vaporizer (non-portable)
  • Vaporize with a vape pen or e-cigarette (portable)
  • Eat in food (e.g., brownies, cakes, cookies or candy)
  • Drink (e.g., tea, juice, cola, alcohol, other drinks)
  • Dab (e.g., applying to a hot surface with a metal tool)
  • Other (e.g., tinctures/drops under tongue, applied directly to skin in a lotion)

Who is using cannabis?

A 2017 study by the University of Calgary provides a glimpse into cannabis consumption in Alberta. The research indicates that approximately 8.9 per cent of Albertans (or 370,000 people) have used cannabis within the last 12 months. This compares to a national average of about 10.5 per cent. Because cannabis is currently not legal outside of the medical system, it’s likely the current statistics are underestimated.

Impact on health

While there is some understanding of the shorter-term risks of cannabis use (e.g. effects on memory, attention and motor function), knowledge about long-term risks of cannabis use (e.g. permanent harm to mental functioning, risks of depression and anxiety disorders) is limited, mainly because cannabis use has been illegal, so not many comprehensive studies have been undertaken.

Health risks associated with cannabis use include:

  • Risks to children and youth: Generally speaking, studies have consistently found that the earlier cannabis use begins and the more frequently and longer it is used, the greater the risk of potential developmental harms, some of which may be long-lasting or permanent.
  • Risks associated with consumption: Certain factors are associated with an increased risk of harms, including frequent use and use of higher potency products. Driving while impaired by cannabis increases risk of accidents and fatalities. There are also increased risks if cannabis is used with alcohol or tobacco.
  • Risks to vulnerable populations: Studies have found associations between frequent cannabis use and implications for certain mental illnesses (e.g., schizophrenia and psychosis) and between frequent cannabis use during pregnancy and certain adverse cognitive and behavioural outcomes in children.
  • Risks related to interactions with the illicit market: These include violence and the risks associated with unsafe products, illicit production and exposure to other, more harmful illicit substances.

Source: A Framework for the Legalization and Regulation of Cannabis in Canada

Statistics on cannabis use

Chart 1: Cannabis use over 12-month period

Chart of cannabis use over 12 month period
  • In Alberta, cannabis use is lower than the national average, and the second lowest provincial use rate, with 8.9 per cent reporting use within the last 12 months.
  • However, Alberta has amongst the highest lifetime use (37.3 per cent), second only to Nova Scotia (42.4 per cent). 33.7 per cent of Canadians report lifetime use.
  • In Canada, the prevalence of use within the last 12 months has decreased slightly since 2008 (11.7 per cent in 2008 vs. 10.5 per cent in 2013).
  • Use declined across all provinces from 2008 to 2013, with the exception of BC.

Source: Cannabis Evidence Series, University of Calgary, 2017

How is the federal government legalizing cannabis?

In December 2015, the Government of Canada announced it would be legalizing, regulating and restricting access to cannabis. The federal government struck a task force to consult with Canadians and gather input to guide its approach to legalization.

The task force submitted a report of recommendations grouped in five broad areas:

  1. Minimizing harm of use
  2. Establishing a safe and responsible supply chain
  3. Enforcing public safety and protection
  4. Medical access
  5. Implementation

In April 2017, the federal government introduced legislation to legalize cannabis across Canada by July 2018. If the legislation is passed, the federal government will be responsible for:

  • regulating how and where marijuana can be grown;
  • limiting how and where products will be advertised and promoted;
  • limiting what kind of products can be sold (initially, this doesn’t include edibles); and
  • establishing new criminal prohibitions for those who sell cannabis to a minor or possess and distribute cannabis outside the regulated system.

In addition, the federal legislation allows adults to legally possess up to 30 grams of legal cannabis in public, and to grow up to four plants per household. The federal government is also revising laws around drug-impaired driving to establish a limit for drugs and establishing new tools to train and equip police.

What is Alberta responsible for?

Each province and territory will make its own decisions on how and where cannabis can be distributed, sold and consumed.

In Alberta, we will be making these decisions with four priorities in mind:

  1. limiting the illegal market for cannabis;
  2. keeping cannabis out of the hands of children and youth;
  3. protecting public health; and
  4. protecting safety on roads, in workplaces and in public spaces.

Throughout our engagement process, we asked Albertans to share their views on several areas:

Conversation starter

Before discussing the issues, start by asking the group what they imagine when they hear about cannabis legalized.

This is your ice breaker question for the group. As a facilitator, encourage each person to share with the group what they think legalization means. Record what you hear.

  1. What does legalization mean to me?
  2. What does Alberta look like once cannabis is legal?
  3. Once cannabis is legal, how will that be different from today?

2: What should Alberta be trying to achieve when it comes to cannabis policies?

As the province considers options related to legal cannabis, there are four broad objectives that are being considered in every decision.  These include:

Limiting the illegal market for cannabis

Other than approved sales for medical use, cannabis is currently only available through the illegal black market in Canada, and is often controlled by organized crime groups. Experience with legalized cannabis around the world indicates that it is unlikely any province can eliminate the illegal black market completely. But the decisions Albertans make today — especially about how cannabis will be sold and used in the future — can go a long way to reduce criminal activity and limit access to those who are legally allowed to buy and use.

Keeping cannabis out of the hands of children and youth

Nearly half of Canadians in Grade 12 say they have tried cannabis at least once during their high school years. Without a prescription, this is illegal, and can put these young people at risk. According to research young people who use cannabis are at a greater risk of increased mental health problems, and regular use can negatively impact brain development and functioning. The Government of Alberta wants to make sure that legalization reduces risks of cannabis use by youth, rather than making the problem worse.

Protecting public health

Cannabis is a drug and using it has consequences. By putting rules in place that regulate where and how cannabis can be used and purchased, the province can protect the health of all Albertans, particularly those who are most vulnerable. For example, introducing requirements around protective packaging and labels can reduce the risk of accidental cannabis use by children.

By focusing on protecting health and promoting healthy decisions, Alberta can reduce the public health risks to Albertans, provide information and supports to help identify and address problematic use, and help Albertans be well-informed about the health risks of cannabis.

Promoting safety on roads, in workplaces, and in public spaces

Driving or going to a jobsite impaired are dangerous activities. The federal government has proposed additional new laws to deter driving impaired. With every policy or program considered, Alberta needs to consider how it can reduce the risks of drug impairment on our roads, workplaces and public spaces for the safety of Albertans.

Conversation starter

As facilitator, encourage each person to share with the group what policy priority matters most to them. Why? What motivates them? Are there other priorities Alberta should be considering?

  1. What policy priority matters most?

3: What age should people be allowed to use cannabis in Alberta?

The federal government has set the minimum age for possession and consumption of cannabis at 18, but left the option open to provinces to set the age higher. This is a complex subject with no easy answer.

Research suggests that cannabis use by those under the age of 25 results in higher risk of dependency, and higher risk of health impacts.

However, in Alberta it is young adults under 24 who are most likely to have used cannabis in the last 12 months. If the age is set higher than 18, these young people will likely still use, and will purchase from the illegal black market.

Conversation starter

As facilitator, encourage each person to share their views on setting the legal age. Encourage the group to think about the trade-offs listed earlier. Talk through what parallels there are between the legal age for alcohol and cannabis – does it matter that the legal age for alcohol is different across Canada? Should the cannabis legal age be consistent – why or why not?

  1. What matters most in considering the legal age in Alberta?

4: How and where should people be able to purchase cannabis in Alberta?

While the federal government made the decision to make cannabis legal in Canada, Alberta is responsible for determining how it will be distributed and where it can be sold. This could be done in a variety of different ways.

The Government of Alberta could allow private retail stores to sell cannabis products to consumers. This could include stand-alone retail stores or it could mean existing stores are allowed to sell cannabis along with products they already sell.

In a private retail model, the Government of Alberta would establish rules for who could sell cannabis (such as requiring a clean criminal record) and where (such as what products could be sold in the same location). The government could also require anyone who wants to open a retail cannabis store to get a licence and follow specific rules for where stores could be located, training requirements for staff, hours of operation, and what the signage for stores should look like. The Government of Alberta would then conduct regular inspections to make sure stores were following the rules and not selling cannabis to anyone under age.

Alternatively, cannabis retail stores could be owned and operated directly by the government, the same way alcohol is sold in some other parts of the country. This would reduce the need for some inspections, as the rules would be established and carried out by government staff. This could also ensure that stores are evenly distributed across the province.

Regardless of who owns and operates stores, the federal government will also be establishing rules restricting how cannabis products can be marketed and advertised, how products need to be labelled, and the type of products that can be produced. The federal government would be responsible for inspections to make sure these rules are followed, and Alberta could put in place additional restrictions.

Conversation starter

As facilitator, encourage each person to share their views on where, when, and how cannabis could be purchased. Do they imagine something owned and operated by the government, or by private retailers? What requirements should be in place, given your participants’ responses to who should own and operate? How do you envision neighbourhoods with retailers, whether government or privately run, will be potentially impacted? What about purchasing online?

  1. What matters most in considering purchasing cannabis in Alberta?
  1. Where do I think adults should be able to purchase cannabis?

5: Should people be allowed to use cannabis in public?

The legislation recently introduced by the federal government would allow adults to have up to 30 grams of cannabis in their possession in public, but it is up to the provinces to determine if cannabis can be consumed in public and if so, where and under what circumstances.

For example, some jurisdictions with legal cannabis allow cannabis to be used in public establishments that are only accessible by adults. This is similar to how alcohol can be consumed in a bar or lounge. Others limit consumption to places where only cannabis can be consumed, and alcohol is not sold, as co-use with alcohol, or other drugs, poses a risk for increased impairment and health harms.

The government has strict rules in place to protect Albertans from secondary smoke from tobacco. These include prohibiting smoking in public places, workplaces and within five metres of a doorway, window or air intake of a public place or workplace. These rules could be applied to limit exposure to secondary smoke from cannabis.

It is possible for the THC in cannabis (the chemical that gives the ‘high’) to be found in the urine and blood of individuals who are exposed to second-hand smoke. As a result, these non-smokers could potentially experience psychoactive effects when exposed to a high volume of second-hand smoke in enclosed, poorly ventilated spaces.

Conversation starter

As facilitator, encourage each person to share their views on where cannabis can be consumed in public.

  1. What matters to you when considering cannabis use in public?
  1. Should the same rules as smoked tobacco apply? Different rules? Why or why not?
  1. Are different rules needed for cannabis that is smoked compared to product that is eaten?
  1. Are there some places that cannabis should not be allowed at all?

6: How will roads and workplaces be kept safe?

Drug-impaired driving

Driving while impaired is a serious crime, and puts everyone at risk. Cannabis impairment can impact ability to react while driving, similar to the impacts of alcohol. However, there are limitations with the current tests available for cannabis impairment. Unlike alcohol, where the blood alcohol level and the impairment level go hand in hand, cannabis can stay in the system for days and weeks — potentially after impairment and the associated risks have subsided.

The legislation proposed by the federal government establishes a limit for how much THC (the chemical in cannabis that gives the ‘high’) a driver can have in their system, similar to how the legal limit is established for alcohol. Like with alcohol, the federal government also allows for the province to make additional rules related to drug impaired driving. These could include temporarily seizing the vehicle, or suspending the driver's licence.

Occupational health and safety

All Albertans should have safe workplaces, and that means workplaces that are free from impairment. Current Occupational Health and Safety rules in Alberta require employers to ensure their worksites are safe, and a significant aspect of this is ensuring their workers are fit to perform their tasks. It is important for Alberta to determine if existing rules are sufficient to keep workplaces safe, or if more needs to be done.

Conversation starter

As facilitator, encourage each person to share their views on the safety of your community/group/workplace — whatever is most appropriate to your group. What needs to change, if anything, to keep the community safe with respect to cannabis legalization?

  1. How do we keep our roads and workplaces safe?

We’ve had a conversation. Now what?

Whether your group discussed all the topics or whether they shared their thoughts on just one or two areas, you’ve probably had some interesting and productive conversations. Before you end the formal discussion, ask your participants if they have any further thoughts about cannabis and its legalization in Alberta. Does anyone have comments that go beyond the formal questions? Does anyone feel there were topics not discussed that should have been? Was anything left unanswered or did this discussion raise questions that weren’t considered before?

Thank you for organizing and leading a conversation on cannabis.