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Health ministers to talk cannabis, opioids during two-day meeting in Edmonton

Last Updated Oct 18, 2017 at 6:20 pm EST

EDMONTON – The health implications of legalized cannabis and ways to combat Canada’s rising opioid problem are on the agenda when health ministers meet this week in the Alberta capital.

Provincial and territorial ministers will hold discussions Thursday and will get an update on the marijuana file from federal counterpart Ginette Petipas Taylor on Friday.

Manitoba Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen says he wants to know more about the impacts on health and on the health system.

“Many studies show that people are affected by the consumption of marijuana up until the age of 25 because there can be long-term effects if the brain is still developing up until that age,” said Goertzen.

“We have concerns from a health perspective — what additional costs does that cause to the system and what negative outcomes does it cause to Canadians?”

Ottawa has set the minimum legal age for marijuana consumption at 18 when recreational cannabis use becomes legal July 1. The provinces can set the minimum age higher.

“We’ve done a great deal in society trying to move people away from smoking. If you suddenly have more people smoking, in this case marijuana, you’re going to have some long-term detriment to people’s health,” said Saskatchewan Health Minister Jim Reiter.

“There’s the issue about at what point is it safer for use.”

The Canadian Medical Association says 25 is the safe age health-wise but says 21 would be a more realistic number to keep youth from getting cannabis through the black market.

A number of provinces already have preliminary plans in place. Ottawa and New Brunswick are looking at a minimum age of 19, while Alberta is proposing 18.

The federal government is getting push back on what critics say is too ambitious a plan to have legalized cannabis, along with tougher Criminal Code penalties and sanctions, in place by next summer.

In July, premiers and territorial leaders did not call for a delay, but said they might ask for an extension if Ottawa does not help them resolve the issues related to distribution, safety, taxation, justice and public education.

Ottawa has said it won’t allow the sale of edible cannabis until it has rules in place around health warnings, serving sizes and packaging.

The ministers also plan to compare notes on how various jurisdictions are working to combat the increased use of opioids.

Last month, the federal government reported that at least 2,816 Canadians died from opioid-related causes in 2016 — a total that’s expected to surpass 3,000 in 2017.

The Canadian Institute for Health Information warns the crisis is hitting the health system. It says 16 Canadians a day are being hospitalized for opioid toxicity in 2016-17, up from 13 a day two years prior — a rise of almost 20 per cent.

B.C.’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy said four people are dying daily in the province from drug overdoses.

“We’re going to be asking (Ottawa) to remove some of the barriers that are in place now to the rapid approval of safe consumption sites,” Darcy said.

Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman said they will discuss “some of the specific actions that are happening in different jurisdictions that we would like the federal government potentially to support us with.”

Hoffman said they will also be looking at outcomes and impacts from recent overall health cost-sharing deals struck between Ottawa and the provinces.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Ontario’s Eric Hoskins say they will pursue reforms on prescription drugs.

“I plan to work with the other jurisdictions towards a national pharmacare program, and I hope that this meeting will be a good first start,” said Dix in a statement.

Hoskins said he will be telling the group about steps Ontario has taken. Starting Jan. 1, the Liberal government’s youth pharmacare plan will cover more than 4,400 prescription medications for Ontarians under 25, with no co-pay or deductible, at an annual cost of $465 million.

“Obviously one of the concerns is affordability, so I believe that Ontario can demonstrate that it can be done,” Hoskins said.

— with files from Allison Jones in Toronto, Jennifer Graham in Regina, Steve Lambert in Winnipeg and Dirk Meissner in Victoria