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Smoking pot may be good for your mental health

Dr. Zach Walsh, an associate professor of psychology at UBC Okanagan, will speak on the mental health benefits of legalized cannabis next week at Okanagan College in Vernon.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/UBC Okanagan
November 07, 2018 - 6:30 PM

KELOWNA - Legalization of cannabis may not solve the opioid crisis or end traffic deaths, but a UBC Okanagan associate psychology professor is suggesting it may help.

Zach Walsh will speak about the public health impacts of cannabis legalization in Vernon at Okanagan College next week.

Walsh noted the varying levels of legalization in different U.S. states has provided some great research on the issue.

“I think cannabis does have the potential to substitute for, primarily opioids and alcohol,” he told “What we’re seeing in those states that have looser or tighter cannabis regulations is that there is some reductions in traffic fatalities they attribute to reduced alcohol use.”

Cannabis does trigger some of the same mental pathways as opioids and, with high concentrations, users can still get a high that, while not be the same as other drugs, may reduce or replace the use of some drugs or alcohol. Some people, for example, are using high concentrations of cannabis to help kick crack cocaine addictions.

“If we look at cannabis entirely in isolation and we just look at the harms and think about cannabis as if it’s being stacked on top of other drugs, then it doesn’t offer much,” Walsh said. “But if it’s instead of things that are more dangerous, I think that opens up a whole world of possibilities in terms of public health benefits. I’m not saying that’s the last word. It’s something we have to look at.”

But looking at the impacts of cannabis is not a simple matter.

The standard way for drugs to be tested is through the use of Randomized Controlled Trials that are double blind studies where some subjects are given the drug being tested while others are given a placebo.

The trails are very expensive so usually are only done by large pharmaceutical companies testing single molecule drugs that are not available anywhere else.

Cannabis presents totally different challenges.

For one thing, it’s readily available so many test subjects have already used it. For another thing, the effects are immediately noticeable so a placebo is not an option.

And, finally, Walsh noted, if it seems to be effective for the test subject, they can just go out and buy some, rather than rely on what’s provided by the researcher.

Still, he is involved in a study of cannabis on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder by using vaporizers that minimizes throat irritation but still gives the immediate sensation.

If society is going to rely exclusively on Randomized Controlled Trials, that is just giving the pharmaceutical industry “a monopoly on knowledge production,” Walsh said.

He noted that, in most studies of anti-depressant medications, the subjects can easily tell the difference between the placebo and the medication similar to cannabis.

“I think a more helpful approach is to talk with patients and find out what we do know about the risks and benefits and then respect their decisions to improve their well-being if they see fit,” he said.

Research out of the United States also shows that legalization of cannabis has had little impact on the consumption patterns of young adults but there seems to be some increase in older generations. And the stated intent to keep it out of the hands of children seems to be bearing fruit.

As for the positive impact on mental health?

“The benefit is, there are millions of Canadians now who have long been entirely law abiding citizens except for the fact they didn’t feel compelled to follow what they saw was an unenforced and senseless law," Walsh said. “So a bunch of people whose only crime was smoking pot are now law abiding citizens. I think that’s a good thing for our society."

Walsh’s presentation is in the lecture theatre of Okanagan College’s Vernon campus on Tuesday, Nov. 13, at 7:30 p.m.

Admission is $10. Participants can register in advance online here or pay at the door.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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