Strengthening community through dialogue: Let’s Talk Cannabis

a photo of two people having a conversation

Some time ago there was an anthropologist who lived amongst a North American tribe. He noticed that from time to time the tribe would meet in a circle. They talked and talked and talked –for what seemed like no purpose at all. There was no leader and no agenda. No decisions were made. Although tribe members tended to listen to the elders a bit more – wise men and women- everybody in the circle participated as equals. The meeting went on until it stopped and the group dispersed. The anthropologist didn’t understand until one day the tribe was challenged. What he observed was remarkable. Everybody understood each other so well that they knew what to do. There was no crisis. They could easily move towards action having recognized the beliefs, values and perspectives that reside inside their community. -David Bohm, On Dialogue

We know that strong communities make for healthier citizens. And when our communities nurture human connections, we are better able to face social challenges. But in our day and age, we have stopped investing in community understanding. Polarizations exist and we have stopped talking to each other. Competitiveness and self-interest have made it difficult to truly hear each other. We find it hard to deal with divergent opinion or contested evidence. As a result, our conversations tend to mimic our civic life of disconnection.

So, how do communities build strength and resilience, especially in light of upcoming cannabis policy changes?

Dialogue is a way to create trust and explore new possibilities for a community. It is deeply needed in our divided world. Addressing complex issues such as cannabis legalization requires that we come together as a community and build understanding. Similar to the members of the tribe, we need opportunities to talk with each other in safe environments and create connection. Few of us ever take the opportunity to engage respectfully with people who hold different views. Our social networks are generally made up of people who share our beliefs. Yet when we engage with people who are different from us, we get to see another side of the human story. Even if we do not wholly agree with the new perspective, listening openly and empathically expands our understanding.

What exactly is dialogue?

Ironically, dialogue is more about listening than talking. The sort of listening that is important in dialogue demands our empathy and our genuine curiosity about the experiences of other people—including their assumptions, beliefs and values. When people feel listened to, they also feel validated and respected. The experience of being listened to empathically widens our minds and opens our hearts—and prepares us to listen appreciatively to others with the same kind of engagement and respect, even to people with radically different experiences and points of view.

Unlike other forms of public communication (for example, debates or negotiations), dialogue is not meant to lead immediately to agreement or action. Instead, the hope is that we will come away from dialogue with a new understanding of the subject, of each other and of ourselves. This new understanding enables us to work together more effectively as community members. As a result, our communities become more flexible, and better able to respond to challenges. And as individuals and communities, we develop a greater sense of control over our own lives and well-being.

Dialogue is more than a process or methodology—it is a way of being. It is an art that requires reflective practice. It is the skill of connecting and building bridges between individuals with different views, especially in times of change.

What does dialogue about cannabis look like?

Communities across Canada have expressed divergent opinions and concerns about legalized cannabis. A national partnership was formed to help communities create spaces where people can come together and build understanding of each other, of themselves and of the subject.

Communities are doing everything from conversation cafés to photo voice to walking tours to spark the dialogue about cannabis. With a focus on questions rather than answers, participants are moving towards a deeper space of inquiry together. Dialogue encourages us to be creative and move away from typical large-scale forums that privilege “expert” opinion. While providing information is important, the real challenge is to level the playing field and maximize opportunities for community members to interact, exchange views and acknowledge each other’s values, beliefs and assumptions.  Opportunities like this might start to address some of the polarizations we see today and also create a foundation for communities to start working together instead of apart.


Let’s Talk Cannabis is led by the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research. The partnership includes the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, the British Columbia Ministry of Health, Alberta Health Services, the Saskatchewan Ministry of Health, the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation, and the Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Health and Community Service. Due to the difference from other forms of communication, resources were developed to aid communities in understanding and facilitating dialogue.

A photo of Kristina Jenei

Kristina Jenei, coordinator, Let’s talk Cannabis project

**Please note that the material presented here does not necessarily imply endorsement or agreement by individuals at the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research.

Proposed federal legislation on cannabis and alcohol impaired driving

Introducing our new “Cannabis and Driving” blog series.

Impaired driving in Canada refers to the operation of a motor vehicle while the driver’s ability is impaired by alcohol or drugs. In this series, I look at existing and proposed laws concerning impaired driving by cannabis and compare these laws with those for alcohol. In doing so, I contrast the research that supports or refutes these laws. A critical element for assessing the value of these laws is the criteria used to define impairment. In this series, we see that the nature of the scientific evidence used for assessing alcohol impaired driving differs substantially from cannabis impaired driving.

What are current federal laws for cannabis and alcohol while driving?

Today in Canada, convictions for impaired driving by cannabis are based on behavioural grounds of drug impairment, using the Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) approach. This approach typically involves obtaining behavioural evidence of drug impairment, such as poor balance or difficulty concentrating, followed by drug tests, often urinalysis, to confirm drugs have indeed been used. As epidemiologist Leon Gordis writes in Chapter 5 of Epidemiology, the advantage of this two-step approach is that those identified as impaired are more likely to be impaired than with a simpler one-step approach. The drawback is that the process is cumbersome and dependent on police correctly identifying drivers that appear under the influence, a difficult task; hence, it results in a low conviction rate. In 2016, drug-related driving charges, including those for cannabis, accounted for about 3.9% of all charges, with the remainder (97.1%) being alcohol.

For alcohol, it is a criminal offence to drive with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08% alcohol (this legislation, frequently referred to as per se law for the Latin term meaning “by itself” came into effect in 1969). It is also a criminal offence to refuse a sobriety test assessment or a breath test. The original per se law was based on a breathalyzer reading at a police station. Prototypes of breath tests for alcohol were designed in the 1800s, but only through refinements in designs has the roadside breath test that we have today been approved as an accurate estimation of a person’s actual BAC (as proven by comparisons with blood tests). However, under current laws, police are still required to have reasonable grounds to order a driver to provide a breath sample.

What are provincial laws for alcohol or cannabis while driving?

In addition to the criminal laws proposed by the federal government, many have additional laws against drinking and driving. Most provinces have penalties for drivers at BAC levels of 0.05% alcohol – the equivalent of about 2 standard drinks for a 160-pound man. Ignition interlock systems that prevent drinking drivers from starting a vehicle until passing a breathalyzer test, administrative license suspensions, and vehicle impoundment are other types of laws and consequences for drinking drivers. For cannabis, Alberta has passed zero tolerance laws against any amount of cannabis detected in new drivers. BC is considering similar legislation plus a 90-day Administrative suspension when police reasonably believe drivers are affected by cannabis.

What is the proposed federal legislation for cannabis and alcohol while driving?

The Government of Canada prepared a backgrounder report in 2017 that describes proposed legislative changes for laws in relation to cannabis and driving. The legislation would permit roadside oral fluid tests when law enforcement officers reasonably suspect that a driver has taken cannabis or other drugs.  For positive readings, officers could demand a drug evaluation or a blood sample. A blood test reading of 2 to 5 ng/ml THC in whole blood would be subject to a summary (i.e., less serious) criminal conviction and a penalty fine of up to $1,000.  A reading over 5 ng/ml could be subject to an indictable (i.e., more serious) offence and a mandatory fine of $1,000 for a first offence and higher penalties for repeat offenders. Those with both a BAC over .05% alcohol and 2.5 ng/ml THC could also be charged with an indictable offence.

New laws targeting drinking drivers are also on the table. Proposed changes would let law enforcement officers randomly administer an alcohol breathalyzer test to a driver without any suspicion the driver has been drinking. The laws propose escalating mandatory minimum fines based on different BAC thresholds and repeat offenders would be subject to mandatory prison sentences, similar to the current ones.

What is the scientific basis for the proposed laws? 

The Government of Canada did not provide references of scientific studies in its 2017 backgrounder to support these recommendations. In this blog series, I will review scientific studies to see what the evidence says about cannabis impairment in an attempt to understand why the Canadian government is proposing these changes to impaired-driving laws, and whether the proposed legislation makes sense within Canadian criminal laws. In doing so, comparisons will be drawn with alcohol.

Part 2: The safety benefits of alcohol breath-testing: a research summary

Part 3:  The safety benefits of THC blood testing: a research summary

Part 4: The myth and origins of 24-hour performance deficits from cannabis

Scott Macdonald is the Assistant Director of research at the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research and a professor in the School of Health Information Science at the University of Victoria. He has been an expert witness in several cases related to drug testing in the workplace. Material from this series is taken from his book, Cannabis Crashes: Myths and Truths, Lulu Press. 

**Please note that the material presented here does not necessarily imply endorsement or agreement by individuals at the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research.