In the run-up to the legalization of recreational marijuana in Canada on Oct. 17, 2018, many universities and colleges are still in a wait-and-see position concerning marijuana use on campus.
One university in British Columbia, however — Thompson Rivers University (TRU) — has taken a firm and proactive stance.
TRU’s 20-person Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee (JOHSC), of which I am a member, unanimously voted on March 5, 2018, to ban all smoking of marijuana products on campus — for health and safety reasons.
Research shows that Canadian university students are big consumers of cannabis products. Other university administrators across the country now face the tough questions of whether to allow pot to be consumed, or even sold in cannabis lounges, on campus and how to weigh the existing evidence on marijuana’s effects.
Up to 600 times more potent
Pro-marijuana smokers on the TRU committee argued that marijuana smoke is no different than cigarette smoke and that smoking areas designated for cigarette smoke should also be used for marijuana.
This was also the position taken by a Thompson Rivers University safety and emergency management newsletter dated April 2016, which declared university grounds to be “…entirely smoke-free with the exception of nine designated smoking areas where smoking is allowed. The smoking policy bans the use of lit tobacco and/or medical marijuana cigarettes, cigars, pipes, smokeless tobacco, electronic cigarettes and any other similar device (outside of these areas).”
So why was the committee moved to suggest changing a long-standing smoking policy? The JOHSC was presented with the following information: First, marijuana smoked in the 1960s was only 1.5 per cent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — the psychoactive ingredient that gets you high — by weight.
Modern hybrid genetically modified and hydroponically grown marijuana from British Columbia — “B.C. Bud” — may contain up to 30 per cent THC by weight. This represents a 20-fold increase in “pot potency” since the 1960s.
Synthetic marijuana, called “Spice” or “Shatter,” is 30 times more potent than modern B.C. Bud. Thus, synthetic marijuana is 600 times stronger than the ditch weed smoked by comedy duo Cheech and Chong in the 1970s.
More carcinogens than tobacco smoke
Why is potency important? Second-hand smoke is the reason.
Side-stream smokers (bystanders) can have up to 20 per cent of active ingredients in their lungs after standing by, or walking next to, smokers.
Non-marijuana users will not have the metabolites in their systems to deal with this level of intoxication. That is, they will not have built up a tolerance. Also, naïve bystanders cannot tell the potency of the marijuana smoked just by smell alone. Most animal studies demonstrate the ease with which such second- hand marijuana smoke can negatively affect behaviour.
Most people are aware of the hazards associated with second-hand tobacco smoke. However, very few know that marijuana smoke has 300 to 500 per cent more carcinogens than tobacco smoke.
The JOHSC at Thompson Rivers University is considering individual ingestion of medical marijuana — via brownies, gummy bears or pills — on campus because the consumption of such medicinal products doesn’t negatively impact others directly.
From cognitive impairment to psychosis
The analogy that marijuana smoking is somehow similar to cigarette smoking is flawed. Marijuana is an intoxicant and therefore is analogous to drinking alcohol on campus. Smoking marijuana should therefore fall under the Liquor Control and Licensing Act Section 40, 1996, chapter 267. As TRU did not allow the open consumption of alcohol in public places on campus, neither would it allow marijuana to be smoked on campus.
Perhaps the most damning evidence against marijuana use comes from a 2014 paper in the New England Journal of Medicine. Although this paper acknowledges that the evidence on marijuana’s impacts on the brain is complex and sometimes contradictory, it reviews the available science to suggest that anyone even considering going to university would be unwise to smoke or ingest marijuana.
It shows that the short-term use of marijuana can make it difficult to learn and retain information. Marijuana has been linked to impaired motor co-ordination, altered judgment and risky sexual behaviour.
The paper profiles research showing a 25 per cent to 50 per cent risk of addiction among daily users, along with diminished life satisfaction and the potential for altered brain development and cognitive impairment (with lower IQ among those who were frequent users during adolescence).
Finally, marijuana has been linked with psychoses (including those associated with schizophrenia), especially among people with a genetic vulnerability in their family.
Chris Montoya gratefully acknowledges Kimberly Webster as co-author.