The anti-drug ads of the ‘80s were not, as David Hammond notes, terribly honest.
In one iconic (and, many critics say, moronic) TV spot, an actor stands in a kitchen, arms crossed, and asks, “Is there anyone out there who still isn’t clear about what doing drugs does?” He cracks an egg into a sizzling cast iron frying pan (it reportedly took several dozen eggs before actor John Roselius landed one in the middle without splitting the yolk). “This is your brain on drugs,” he said.
Hammond, a professor in the school of public health at the University of Waterloo, is among those who say the egg metaphor didn’t quite go over as planned. In addition to being mercilessly parodied, “it wasn’t really successful in discouraging young people in using the way it was intended.”
But the legalization of marijuana offers a chance for more honest and credible conversations around pot. “The tricky part is that part of harm reduction will continue to be that you shouldn’t be using this product,” Hammond said.
This month, Health Canada will roll out a $5.1 million travelling marijuana education tour. Exhibits will be set up at local events, fairs, festivals and Canadian Hockey League arenas starting in July in the Maritimes and Northwest Territories. There will be climbing walls, interactive graffiti walls and other events to encourage people to discover activities “that can give them a natural high, rather than using cannabis,” the department told the Post. Exhibits will be staffed by “ambassadors” whose job it will be to “engage visitors in conversations about the health and safety facts on cannabis.”
Health Canada has also released a list of proposed warnings for pot packaging, including: cannabis smoking is harmful; teens are at greater risk of harms; people should not drive stoned; and women should not use if pregnant or breastfeeding (emerging evidence is linking pot exposure in the womb or through breast milk to stillbirth, preterm birth, low birth weight and poorer mental development in children).
Hammond takes some comfort that the warnings seem more rational than the old fear mongering, and may, counterintuitively, lead to fewer minors using weed.
“By being more honest and open that cannabis can be used responsibility,” Hammond said, “it’ll add credibility to the messages that say, ‘but you shouldn’t really use it under these settings, and one of those is if you’re a young person.’”
Hammond says there is evidence supporting each of the proposed Health Canada health warnings. “And none of them (except for the warnings around pregnancy and breastfeeding) actually say people shouldn’t use cannabis. That’s harm reduction.”
But one suggested warning that has been criticized for being hyperbolic is that “up to 1 in 2 people who use cannabis daily will become addicted.”
Pot can indeed result in “addiction” — but to a far lesser extent than many other substances. In a paper published last year in the Canadian Journal of Public Health, Hammond and his co-authors found that a “very small proportion of Canadians report using cannabis to a degree that is problematic.” Only two per cent of the sample of Canadians who reported using pot in the past three months was at high risk of developing health or other problems.
Most people use pot responsibly, Hammond said. “But there is a reasonable number who can have problems controlling their use, and signs of daily use can be an indication of that.”
Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP) has produced its own “Sensible Cannabis Toolkit” based on what it says is realistic and evidence-based information to help adults have non-judgemental conversations with youth about weed.
For example, the group notes that the majority of pot users don’t transition to harder drugs, rejecting the “gateway” theory. And while heavy use of cannabis has been associated with impairments in cognition and other mental health problems, “any strong conclusions around causality” — meaning, which came first? — are still lacking, according to the CSSDP website. A recent review of the literature led by researchers at the B.C. Centre on Substance Use found that while high-frequency pot use during adolescence has been linked to a lower IQ in later life, more recent studies have found no association after controlling for social factors such as poverty and the neighbourhood someone grew up in.
The students group warns that people tune out sensationalistic scare tactics and condescending messages, and that abstinence-only propaganda like the fried egg or “Just Say No” campaigns don’t resonate with youth. “If they do find themselves struggling with use, they need supports they can use rather than judgement, or, worse, criminalization,” said spokeswoman Heather D’Alessio.
Colorado public health officials have had some success — and early duds — with public service ads around pot since the state legalized recreational weed in 2014.
Early efforts, including a commercial featuring stoned men trying to hang a wall-mounted TV without screwing it in, fell flat, reported the Denver Post, and were criticized by pot advocates as condescending.
They had more success with liberal messaging, like Meg the Budtender, who advises people not to smoke in public, keep marijuana away from children and take it easy if using edibles.
Hamond said this proves that pot ads must go beyond “use or not use,” and include specific information, including that smoking adds excess toxicity, and that today’s cannabis isn’t the same pot many boomers grew up with — the THC levels are much higher.
“Kids want to know the difference between edibles and smoking, and what ‘shatter’ and ‘wax’ is,” Hammond said, referring to concentrated extracts that are far more potent than marijuana buds.
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