When Khadisha Thornhill asked her doctor in early 2018 for a medical cannabis prescription to deal with the emergence of a serious shoulder injury, it did not go well.

“He kiboshed the idea and made me feel like I was asking for a back alley deal,” recalls the co-founder of Afro Cannada Budsistas, who had previously only consumed cannabis socially while in college.

So she sought out Indigenous dispensaries focused on education about the plant and waited for the legal change for recreational use that was coming later that year, and now helps other Black women “learn about cannabis without being stigmatized or pressured or judged.”

The rehabilitation of cannabis in Canada has largely left the Black communities most affected by its criminalization on the outside looking in, with a dearth of information to counteract established narratives and a lack of research into cannabis use and mental health.

Khadisha Thornhill says significant stigma remains about cannabis in Black communities. Photo supplied by Khadisha Thornhill

The gaps perpetuate stigma and misinformation and compromise people’s quality of care and support, according to a new report from the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) that calls for better and more specific research on the topic.

“We still have a lot of work to do on this front. We legalized cannabis but there wasn't a lot of information out there about its use, about its harms and risks,” said Sheldon Mellis, an MHCC program manager who said his mother still thinks cannabis is a very bad thing.

“She doesn't understand that it is legal and can be beneficial,” he said, noting participants in discussions that informed the report shared how cannabis helped them deal with severe depression and anxiety.

The report recommends work shaped by Black researchers be done to better understand the long-term relationship between cannabis and mental health in Black communities, taking into account systemic factors and lived experiences.

The report follows three virtual dialogues the MHCC hosted in late 2020 and early 2021; one with researchers, another with community organizations, and a third with the broader community.

“He kiboshed the idea and made me feel like I was asking for a back alley deal,” @AfroBudsistas co-founder @MsKhadishaT says of her doctor's reaction when she first sought out therapeutic cannabis.

“Participants in all three dialogues made it clear that research and knowledge creation must be undertaken in collaboration with Black communities, not on them,” Dr. Akwasi Owusu-Bempah from the University of Toronto, who moderated the discussion, said in the report’s foreword.

About 50 people took part in the sessions, with other themes that emerged including that Black Canada is heterogeneous, that systemic racism informs much of the discussion, and that race-based and intersectional data is required in future cannabis and mental health research.

MHCC will host an online panel discussion of the findings on April 6.

Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer