The Continuing Stigma Around Medical Marijuana Use

An innovative new project aims to destigmatize the therapeutic use of cannabis.

Posted Jan 20, 2021

Cannabis was legalized in Canada in October 2018, and is now available at a variety of stores. Interestingly, Health Canada just released the results of its 2020 Canadian Cannabis Survey, finding that 27% of Canadians had used cannabis in the last year. Approximately half of those using cannabis stated that they used it for medical purposes, with rates of usage particularly high among people reporting poor or fair mental health.

These findings overlap with the existing research literature, which indicates that a substantial number of people with mental health issues use cannabis therapeutically to manage symptoms such as anxiety, insomniatrauma, and chronic pain. Such medicinal usage can reduce suffering, as cannabis contains analgesic and calming properties that are generally effective and safe when used in moderation.

In sum, around 1 in 7 Canadians are using cannabis for medicinal purposes, many of whom have mental health issues, and evidence suggests that this can have a positive effect on their quality of life and overall well-being.

Stigma and Stereotypes

Although cannabis has been legal for over two years, many stereotypes and stigmas still surround people who use medicinal cannabis, which can lead to discrimination and exclusion. For example, one study from the University of British Columbia found that medicinal cannabis users were frequently labeled as irresponsible and unreliable ‘potheads’ by a variety of people including employers, colleagues, and even healthcare providers.

These stereotypes are far from the truth, as a wide variety of people with mental health issues are using cannabis for medicinal purposes including professionals, blue-collar workers, seniors, parents, and military veterans. In fact, one study found that 52% of Canadian veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (including many who served in Afghanistan) use cannabis for reasons such as relaxation, emotional calming and pain management.

These results are consistent with the findings of a report on medicinal use of cannabis by the Canadian Senate Sub-Committee on Veteran’s Affairs, which noted that veterans often turn to cannabis after other medical treatments have failed or led to intolerable side effects. Indeed, one veteran told the committee that “medical cannabis saved his life and…improved his quality of life by exponential dimensions," while others noted that cannabis is a preferred pain-management option to opioids, with their potential for addiction, abuse, and overdose.

In short, the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding cannabis users are obscuring the fact that people from many different walks of life are now using cannabis for beneficial health purposes. Given this, the Mental Health Commission of Canada (an official government organ) recently funded 14 community-based projects aiming to explore, document, and destigmatize cannabis use in diverse groups.

Stigma Reduction Through Public Education

I am leading one of these newly-funded projects, which will involve producing a series of educational documentaries detailing the diverse reasons why people with mental health issues use cannabis, as well as exploring the impact that such usage has on their well-being and quality of life. Importantly, the documentaries will be produced by a social enterprise comprising of filmmakers with mental illness, who have first-hand experience of some of the aforementioned stigmas and stereotypes. This means that we will approach our tasks with empathy and understanding.

These educational videos will foreground the voices of cannabis users with mental health issues, prioritizing their perspectives by allowing them to share their stories and experiences on camera. While the videos will focus on benefits, they will also include a discussion of the potential risks associated with cannabis consumption, especially overuse. As such, we will also interview a range of experts to ensure a diversity of perspectives.

Once completed, these videos will be made freely available on social media. Moreover, they will be shown during a series of organized screenings (with panel discussions) to a variety of audiences including employers, health care providers, post-secondary educational institutions and other community organizations.

Ultimately, we hope that this grassroots process of video production and dissemination will help destigmatize cannabis use for mental and bodily health reasons, thus bringing this misunderstood issue out of the shadows. This can help create a climate of acceptance and inclusion for the growing number of people who use cannabis therapeutically.

If you are interested in participating in the documentaries, please contact me at [email protected]