We must study mar­i­juana's im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment be­fore it's too late

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Vince Palace

In a flurry of in­ter­na­tional news, af­ter years of false starts and po­lit­i­cal wran­gling, it was fi­nally writ­ten into law: Justin Trudeau’s ad­min­is­tra­tion le­gal­ized recre­ational mar­i­juana use in Canada. Ad­mit­tedly, the course of true le­gal­iza­tion never did run smooth. A myr­iad of com­plex prov­ince-spe­cific reg­u­la­tions and poli­cies have emerged that have served to re­flect the frac­tured po­lit­i­cal na­ture of Canada’s fed­er­a­tion, but also to mildly puzzle its cit­i­zens.

Much of the in­for­ma­tion that had been shared ahead of the big day was in­tended to clear up some of the pub­lic’s con­fu­sion fo­cused on the hu­man health risks of cannabis con­sump­tion. Bill­boards and ad­ver­tis­ing in suitably green font have warned Toronto and Van­cou­ver’s denizens of how smok­ing mar­i­juana can im­pair one’s abil­ity to drive, trig­ger schizophre­nia and other men­tal health is­sues, and stoke ad­dic­tion.

While all ad­mirable and nec­es­sary warn­ings, this focus on hu­man health has high­lighted the no­table lack of pub­lic or gov­ern­men­tal dis­cus­sion on the po­ten­tial im­pact of cannabis on the en­vi­ron­ment, and in par­tic­u­lar on North Amer­ica’s abun­dant sup­plies of fresh wa­ter.

Of­ten fea­tur­ing in the lower rungs of pri­or­ity when it comes to de­ter­min­ing the safety of a drug, the im­pact of a phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal on the fresh­wa­ter en­vi­ron­ment can be sig­nif­i­cant on the health of lakes, rivers and those who re­side nearby.

The gamut is wide and wor­ry­ing – from limpets in the UK no longer able to cling on to rocks for sur­vival as they “bathe in a soup” of an­tide­pres­sants to Cana­dian male fish grow­ing eggs in their testes af­ter be­ing ex­posed to the syn­thetic es­tro­gen found in birth con­trol pills.

These ex­am­ples should serve as a re­minder that when deem­ing a drug fit for mar­ket, we should re­search and fac­tor in its im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment and wa­ter sys­tems.

As the tide of mar­i­juana le­gal­iza­tion seems to be steadily sweep­ing North Amer­ica, it also high­lights how the USA and Canada, with our shared wa­ter­sheds and bor­der­less wa­ter move­ment, need to put our heads to­gether on this is­sue.

When it comes to mar­i­juana, a lot of the re­search and leg­is­la­tion is patchy and re­gion­ally spe­cific. In Canada, some leg­is­la­tion ex­ists to limit the use of more than 95 pes­ti­cides that can be used by li­censed cannabis pro­duc­ers. There is also guid­ance to pre­vent these com­pounds from leech­ing into nearby wa­ter bod­ies and reach­ing its flora and fauna.

But we need to know more.

It’s hard to over­state the im­por­tance of fresh wa­ter to North Amer­ica’s econ­omy and peo­ples. The five mam­moth Great Lakes alone ac­count for 21% of the globe’s fresh­wa­ter sup­plies and no fewer than 35 mil­lion Amer­i­cans and Cana­di­ans de­pend on them for their drink­ing wa­ter.

His­tor­i­cally, eco­nomic devel­op­ment of the con­ti­nent has de­pended on its net­works of lakes and rivers, and to­day it pro­vides places to swim, fish for food, and boat – help­ing to fuel eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity in the recre­ation and tourism in­dus­try. Put sim­ply, ev­ery eco­nomic sec­tor in North Amer­i­can de­pends on fresh wa­ter.

We are still lim­ited in our un­der­stand­ing of how much recre­ational use of cannabis in Canada will in­crease thanks to le­gal­iza­tion. Some pro­jec­tions sug­gest a steep in­crease, but we need to be tracking con­sump­tion to know what could be leech­ing into our wa­ter.

Sec­ond, when cannabis it­self is me­tab­o­lized by hu­mans and ex­creted into our wa­ter sup­plies, it can re­sult in risks that are yet poorly un­der­stood and that are not ac­counted for when just ap­plied pes­ti­cides are ex­am­ined. We need more re­search to fill those in­for­ma­tion gaps.

Our wa­ter flows freely across our con­ti­nent; cannabis flow­ing down from Bri­tish Columbia will not stop short at the bor­der with Idaho.

North Amer­ica’s gov­ern­ments, sci­en­tists and in­dus­try need to work to­gether to en­sure a com­pre­hen­sive un­der­stand­ing of the ef­fects of mar­i­juana on fresh wa­ter, and up­date wastew­a­ter treat­ment fa­cil­i­ties and reg­u­la­tions to pro­tect our lakes and rivers.

Pho­to­graph: Car­los Osorio/Reuters

‘We are still lim­ited in our un­der­stand­ing of how much recre­ational use of cannabis inCanada will in­crease thanks to le­gal­iza­tion.’

Pho­to­graph: Chris Wat­tie/ Reuters

‘When it comes to mar­i­juana, a lot of there­search and leg­is­la­tion is patchy and re­gion­ally spe­cific.’

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