Fact Check: Canada’s Health Minister Tony Clement On Drugs

Tony Clement is an ignorant ideologueTony Clement is an ignorant ideologueLike the majority of his Conservative cabinet colleagues, Tony Clement doesn’t have much of a public profile. The federal health minister is one of the more discreet members of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government and, as such, isn’t often in the public eye. But in light of Ottawa’s recent promise to ramp up Canada’s war on drugs, Clement tipped his hand last week with an op-ed in the National Post that outlines his party’s concerns with Canada’s current drug policy. Unfortunately, Clement’s claims (highlighted below) raise more questions than they answer about the government’s understanding of the matter.
Clement Says: “The UN Office of Drugs and Crime reports that Canada now has the highest proportion of marijuana users in the industrialized world at 16.8% for those between 15 and 64 years of age.”

Clement is right. The UN report concluded Canada’s cannabis consumption rate was significantly higher than those of other industrialized countries. In fact, no other Western nation comes anywhere near Canadians’ proclivity for pot. The U.S., which came closest with 12.6 per cent of users, would need to boost its ranks by one-third just to keep pace with the number of Canadian tokers. England, France, the Netherlands (where public consumption of cannabis has been legal since 1976) and Germany don’t even crack the 10 per cent mark. And Mexico, a long-time source of marijuana in certain parts of the U.S., falls well behind at 3.1 per cent.

But consider the source: UNODC relies on self-reported data from member countries, meaning users have to fess up to their (often private) vice in order to be counted among their glassy-eyed peers. In a previous interview with Maclean’s, Neil Boyd, the associate director of the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, suggested Canadians may simply be more open about their marijuana consumption because it’s not as stigmatized here as it might be elsewhere. “I would be highly skeptical of the methods used to collect data across the full range of countries,” he says. “You’re asking people if they’ve committed a criminal offence, so you’re always going to get something of an underestimate.”

Clement Says: “Eight per cent of youth report using marijuana daily.”

Health Canada’s own data doesn’t mesh with its minister’s claim. Granted, The Globe and Mail ran an erroneous headline in 2003 suggesting? “8 per cent of teenagers use pot daily.” But the data on which The Globe based its article showed 34 per cent of teens had tried marijuana at least once and, of those 34 per cent, eight per cent smoked daily. That would put the correct figure at a considerably more modest 2.7 per cent. (The Globe later issued a correction.) A more recent study by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse suggests “about 3 per cent ? 5 per cent of students use cannabis daily.”

Clement Says: “The most recent Canadian Addictions survey [sic] indicates that while youth alcohol-use rates have stayed relatively consistent since 1989, use of marijuana by youth has almost doubled in the same period.”

The detailed report of the latest Canadian Addiction Survey (CAS) doesn’t include data on youth alcohol and cannabis use rates before 2004, only data for the general population. And while the number of Canadians who’ve smoked pot at least once in their lifetime may indeed be increasing, it’s somewhat disingenuous to compare it to the number who’ve consumed alcohol; the percentage of Canadians who’ve had at least one drink in their lifetime doesn’t have very much room to grow. In 1989, 93.4 per cent of Canadians said they’d whet their whistle at least once in their life, compared to 87.2 per cent in 1994, and 92.8 per cent in 2004. Still, the numbers for marijuana do show a significant increase: from 23.2 per cent in 1989, to 28.2 per cent in 1994, to 44.9 per cent in 2004.

However, a better indicator of consumption (rather than experimentation) may instead be the rate of past-year drinkers and smokers – that is, people who’ve consumed in the 12 months prior to when the survey was taken. Again, alcohol’s adepts are a steady bunch, with 77.7 per cent, 72.3 per cent, and 79.3 per cent of Canadians telling pollsters they’d had a drink at least once in the previous year in 1989, 1994, and 2004, respectively. As for rates of past-year use of marijuana, they more than doubled in the same amount of time, but remain far below those for alcohol: 6.5 per cent in 1989, 7.4 per cent in 1994, and 14.1 per cent in 2004. But there’s no sign it’s kids who are bringing up the numbers. A separate survey cited by Statistics Canada suggests Clement’s claim of increasing pot consumption among youth is dubious at best. “Between 1994 and 2002,” the Canadian Community Health Survey found, “cannabis use rose significantly in all age groups but two: 15-to-17 and 65-or older.”

NORML created this excellent posterNORML created this excellent posterClement Says: “There are no ‘safe’ amounts…, and there are no ‘safe’ illicit drugs.”

Perhaps Clement meant to say “healthy” – as in, “there is no healthy amount of potato chips a human being can eat, but there is a safe amount.” Similarly, while there are certainly no “healthy” amounts of drugs a person can ingest, there are “safe amounts,” especially when it comes it to marijuana, the principal subject of Clement’s article. According to a 1988 ruling by a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency administrative law judge, there is no “potentially lethal” quantity of pot a person can smoke. “[In] order to induce death a marijuana smoker would have to consume 20,000 to 40,000 times as much marijuana as is contained in one marijuana cigarette,” the ruling noted. “A smoker would theoretically have to consume nearly 1,500 pounds of marijuana within about fifteen minutes to induce a lethal response.”

Besides, a number street drugs are but a shadow of their pharmaceutical selves, for which a number of government agencies (like Health Canada) have established safe uses and doses. Under its clinical name, heroin (or, diamorphine) can be legally prescribed as a painkiller in the UK. Pharmaceutical-grade cocaine is sometimes used as a local anesthetic in some eye, ear, and throat surgeries. Prescription drugs like Adderall and Dexedrine, along with a host of others used to treat attention-deficit disorder, contain amphetamine. And that’s saying nothing of Health Canada’s own medical marijuana program. “How can the same drug be safe when it’s used therapeutically and unsafe when it’s used recreationally?” wonders Eugene Oscapella, an Ottawa-based lawyer and a prominent critic of Canada’s war on drugs. “I don’t get that.”

Clement Says: “Vancouver had 36 drug overdoses in the first six months of 2007, compared to 26 in the same period of 2006.”

All true, except the dominant pattern in the number of overdose deaths in Vancouver is a steady decline marked by occasional spikes – not an increase, as Clement seems to suggest. According to data provided by the B.C. Coroners Service, the number of overdose deaths in the Vancouver region has gone from a 10-year peak of 199 in 1998 to less than a third that number (62) in 2005.

Clement Says: “Moreover, the debate over whether to decriminalize marijuana has left an entire generation confused over whether or not pot is legal in Canada. It is not.”

Recent polling data suggests Canadians aren’t confused about the federal government’s pot policy; they just don’t happen to like it very much. An Angus-Reid survey from 2007 showed 55 per cent of Canadians support the legalization of marijuana and 52 per cent opposed Ottawa’s decision to abandon efforts to decriminalize pot possession.

Clement Says: “In the absence of clear advice from government, young people often receive their information from the worst sources: ‘friends’ who are giving away drugs at first, then traffickers who are selling it. We have abandoned this ground to heartless pushers who look for young people to hook as their existing clientele sickens and dies.”

Eugene Oscapella agrees drug education is in dire straits. But he says it’s not just the government’s fault; law enforcement agencies should also shoulder at least part of the blame. “Who does most of the drug education in this country?” Oscapella asks, before answering his own question. “The police. Some of the police programs are appallingly misleading. You mislead a child about marijuana, then he tries it and finds out that, as one of my colleagues once said, his brain doesn’t flow out of his ear – well, he’s not going to believe you about other drugs.” And when it come to providing “clear advice,” Clement’s example could use a bit of fine-tuning. “There are so many things in this [op-ed] that are just plain wrong or are gross distortions of the statistics,” Oscapella says. “I mean, [Clement] should know better. It just lends support to the idea that this is ideological and not science-based.”

– Article from Macleans Magazine, March 13, 2008