Committee Work on the Hill

15 May 2014 Committee Work on the Hill

Special report by ARPA Canada intern Mark Luimes

If you ask most Canadians what they think about parliamentary procedure, they will typically recall question period – the energetic, overly partisan war of words that is publicly televised on CPAC (Cable Public Affairs Channel). Many will come away from question period unimpressed with the seeming inability of MPs to give straight answers or engage in meaningful debate on government issues.

What most people don’t realize, however, is that question period provides a poor picture of the life and work of our parliamentarians. In reality, a significant part of the real work is done in small, multi-partisan committees, characterized by higher levels of co-operation, decorum, and policy analysis than what is typically displayed in question period.

Some sensitive issues are discussed “in camera” which means that the committee discussions are closed to the public. However, most committee meetings are open to the public, giving Canadians a look into how parliamentary life functions in this particular aspect.

As part of ARPA Canada’s God & Government conference in Ottawa last week, I had the opportunity to sit in on the Standing Committee on Health as the committee members studied marijuana use and its health risks and harms. (You can see the official minutes of the meeting here.)

Although MPs are uniquely experienced and knowledgeable in many areas of governance, they cannot be expected to be experts in every issue that the government develops legislation on. As such, committees study issues with the help of the testimony of expert witnesses. On this particular morning, the committee heard from four experts, one of them presenting his testimony via videoconference. The witnesses first were each given a chance to testify from their professional perspective on the health issues surrounding marijuana use, and the committee members followed with in-depth questioning of each of the witnesses and various elements of their evidence. Through this process of examination and discussion, committee members are able to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the issues before them.

Although I wasn’t present for the entire committee meeting, the testimonies that I heard contained some interesting and also troubling information about the health implications of cannabis consumption in its various forms.

An example of one testimony came from an American university professor, arguing that there is a divide between public perception of cannabis consumption and scientific realities. One issue that he addressed is the difference between today’s marijuana and that which the parents of today’s teenagers smoked. Modern growing practices have increased the concentration of tetra-hydro-cannabinol (THC – the primary active ingredient in marijuana), to significantly higher levels than in any marijuana available twenty years ago; methods like smoking butane hash oil have even been able to achieve close to 100% THC concentration. He called the spread of these high THC levels a public health danger.

The most significant study that he presented came from research done on 1000 individuals in New Zealand. Tracking the relationship between adolescent marijuana use and adult IQ, and controlling for other important variables such as alcohol abuse, parenting, and education, Dr. Madeline Meier of Duke University found those who used cannabis experienced a noticeable drop in IQ compared to non-users. The study was challenged, and after being redesigned to meet the challenge, it came back with the same results. Although the study did not provide conclusive proof of a causal relationship, the expert witness encouraged the committee to consider such findings of correlation carefully.

In general, the expert witnesses in Tuesday morning’s committee encouraged education as the best method for preventing the harmful effect of marijuana use. The question of legalization versus criminalization was not discussed extensively, given that the committee was focused on the health risks and harms (it was, after all, the Health Committee, and not the Justice Committee). When witnesses were asked for proposed solutions to the problem, they stated that no single strategy could eliminate the harms associated with marijuana, but education was paramount.

If you want to see a side of Parliamentary business that is rarely shown in the press, find a committee meeting on an issue of interest to you, and attend it. I left the committee with some questions answered, some raised, and a clearer direction for my own future research on marijuana; I’d recommend the experience to anyone.

Some interesting facts discussed by the witnesses in this committee:

Committee Transcript and study will be published and available at this link sometime in the future.

  • There is a divide between science and public perception of the safety of marijuana.
  • A study conducted in the 90’s found that 1 out of 6 youth who try marijuana became dependent on it; this needs to be considered, keeping in mind the relative weakness of the cannabis available twenty years ago.
  • There are much higher levels of THC in today’s marijuana, resulting in a disconnect between a parent’s experience of their marijuana usage and their teenager’s experience today.
  • Although cannabis has medical properties, patients do not need to use the crude cannabis sold on the streets in order to access its beneficial properties.
  • Those who use marijuana eventually can experience much more severe addictions to hard drugs like cocaine and heroin than those who did not use marijuana.
  • Even just casual marijuana usage alters the brain.
  • Industries want legalization and addiction. Kids eat, drink, vaporize, and smoke pot.
  • Colorado has already de facto legalized marijuana through almost universal accessibility via medical distribution; the requirements for getting a prescription have been extremely low for the past few years.
  • An important issue with marijuana edibles, such as brownies, is that you can ingest all the THC much too quickly, resulting in an increase of youth being admitted to emergency after ingesting.
  • Even with regulated marijuana, such as in Colorado, the black market still exists to provide cannabis to youth who are underage.
  • Even when marijuana is quality controlled, it does not affect the levels of THC, which is the primary active and harmful ingredient.
  • Regardless of whether marijuana can cause mental illness, or mental illness leads to marijuana usage, the fact remains that usage does exacerbate mental illness, and it is a common and dangerous relationship.

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