Original cannabis journalism for Canadians

Cannabis: A gateway drug to online vitriol

The president of the Ontario Medical Association recanted after telling the CBC that using recreational cannabis can open the door to crack cocaine use. (Jeff Chiu / The Associated Press files) (CP)

The president of the Ontario Medical Association recanted after telling the CBC that using recreational cannabis can open the door to crack cocaine use. (Jeff Chiu / The Associated Press files)

It all started with a radio interview. Like every other media outlet in Canada, CBC News in London, Ont. wanted to shed some perspective on cannabis legalization — so, they hosted a respected physician for a chat last Thursday.

Dr. Nadia Alam, president of the Ontario Medical Association, told CBC about her concern over certain aspects of legalization. The interview contained a few inaccurate assertions, but the big one was Dr. Alam's statement that recreational use of cannabis "can lead to use of other, more serious drugs like crack cocaine."

The well-worn "gateway drug" hypothesis still has a firm grip on popular consciousness, despite a lack of conclusive evidence that marijuana actually causes users to move on to "worse" drugs. CBC News London likely recognized that, and wrote up Dr. Alam's statement as its own online news story with the provocative headline, "Cannabis a 'gateway' drug? The head of the Ontario Medical Association thinks so."

The online backlash to that story was swift, and Dr. Alam issued an online apology and clarification prompted by what she said was new information from some of her medical colleagues: "Recreational cannabis is NOT a gateway drug." (She even contacted CBC to amend her statement, which became yet another slice of clickable content for the CBC News website.)

But even Dr. Alam's apology, and her remarkable willingness to publicly rectify the situation, wasn't enough for some. Certain online commentators insisted Dr. Alam should quit practicing medicine or resign from the OMA, leaving her perplexed at social media's capacity for nastiness.

As stereotypes would have it, cannabis users are supposed to be a gentle bunch, so why some of them so angry at Dr. Alam, even after she went to such efforts to correct the record?

The answer may lie in a long-simmering frustration among medical cannabis advocates, a sense that mainstream medical professionals simply don't understand cannabis and don't care to learn anything about its potential benefits.

Meanwhile, those champions of cannabis might argue, respectable doctors have been more than happy to put their patients on harmful prescription medications such as opioids.

That tension is understandable, even if the public shaming on social media isn't. Anecdotally speaking, many medical cannabis users turned to the drug after being failed by traditional Western medicine, and see cannabis as an antidote to a broken system. They want the world — and doctors especially — to see that cannabis can have a place in health care.

Is yelling at physicians on the internet change likely to achieve that goal? It's doubtful. But perhaps those beleaguered advocates should take heart: now, CBC News has turned the whole thing into a further exploration of the "stigma around marijuana."


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