PARDON Profile: Dr Jenna Valleriani
Dr Jenna Valleriani is a Post Doctoral Fellow at UBC’s British Columbia Centre on Substance Use and a strategic advisor at Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP). She was awarded “Author the Year” three consecutive years in a row at the Canadian Cannabis Awards and recently testified as an expert witness at the Senate of Canada concerning youth and Bill C-45.
In advance of Legalization Day, we spoke to Dr Valleriani about her research interests and hopes for the future of cannabis in Canada.
What drew you to study cannabis?
It started about 8 years ago. I was doing research at the University of Toronto and I had a friend who had been in a car accident. He had been using cannabis for pain reduction and was looking obtain legal access. This was pre-MMPR, so you didn't hear too much about medical cannabis. He described this very underground process; speaking to the right people who would direct you to the right doctor. Not particularly easy!
Eventually, my personal research led me to uncover dispensaries. I came from a smaller community so quickly learned that there were shops that have existed across Canada for over a decade and I was fascinated by their quasi-legal status. When I started my work there were only 12 dispensaries in Toronto, which is a very far cry from what the landscape looks like now. So I started looking at how these storefronts were able to operate; who they were serving; how they were bridging the gap between patients and accessing quality cannabis products. It started from there: a personal story which evolved into studying what the "scene" looked like leading up to legalization day.
What do you think is important for the Government of Canada to consider after October 17?
Globally, people are looking at Canada as a model for what policy reform can look like, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be critical of the existing legislation. It's smart policy to start restrictive and then open up those regulations, but there is this whole other side around social justice that isn't being addressed. Really, drug policy reform is first and foremost about social justice. It's not just about creating a mega-industry, it's about undoing the wrongs that are so embedded in the drug war.
From a research perspective, what excites you about a post-legalization landscape?
It's interesting that we can now stop focusing on the potential harms and risks of cannabis and, instead, start looking at some of the potential benefits –– not just of cannabis use but also of legalization. This isn't to say that it doesn't come without risks and harms, but what I find promising is looking at the instrumental use of cannabis.
For example, some of the work I do is studying people who use drugs on Vancouver's downtown eastside who are using cannabis to substitute for other, more toxic substances. I think in the current context–where we are in the middle of a public health crisis due to the toxicity of fentanyl infiltrating the narcotic supply–considering how cannabis could become an exit strategy (from opioids) gets me really excited.
What has been motivational in your work around cannabis amnesty?
Looking at the statistics around youth: young people 18 to 25 have the highest number of drug-related arrests in Canada, followed by young people who are 12 to 17-years-old. 80% of those are for cannabis possession. The impact of legalization could be so substantial because now we're eliminating the threat of minor possession charges and consequently, the substantial impacts that they carry as well.
What does PARDON mean to you?
For me, it's about levelling the playing field. Ensuring that we are expunging those records, starting with simple possession, so that it can't be brought up when you cross the border; so that it doesn't interfere with access to scholarships and housing. Simply put, PARDON is about social justice.
By Jon Dekel
Photo credit: Fernando Prado