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Carly Weeks

Tobacco is addictive, dangerous and responsible for thousands of deaths in Canada each year. Imagine if the federal government tried to deal with that massive threat by making tobacco illegal and throwing anyone caught with a cigarette in jail.

Would that put a stop to smoking? Or simply drive it underground and tie up valuable resources trying to enforce a ban destined to fail?

The answer, of course, is the latter. And that's why Canada has, over the course of decades, invested in strategies that work: restricting sale of tobacco to minors, banning cigarette advertisements and sponsorships, even prohibiting retail displays of tobacco products in stores. Across the country, smoking rates have fallen dramatically and awareness of the dangers of tobacco is high.

So it seems beyond irresponsible that the federal government continues, with mule-like insistence, to stand by its position that the way to stop young people from smoking marijuana is to keep it illegal.

That strategy doesn't work. And sticking to it only makes the problem worse.

There are ongoing debates over the merits of medical marijuana, and it's worth noting that is a whole separate topic. From a public-health standpoint, the debate over policy on recreational marijuana use, similar to policies surrounding tobacco and alcohol, hinges on how to reduce society's exposure to potential harms.

Canada has the dubious distinction of having the highest rates of marijuana usage among young people across all developed countries (nearly 30 per cent of 15-year-olds said they had tried it in the past year, according to a 2013 Unicef study; and the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse reports that as much as 10 per cent of Grade 12 students smoke pot every day). That should be cause for serious alarm given what we are learning about marijuana's effect on the developing brain. Last month, The Globe and Mail documented the mounting evidence connecting early and/or frequent exposure to marijuana with neurological problems, some of them serious and long-lasting.

The federal government is aware of the risks, and recently launched a new, expensive advertising campaign to warn people about the dangerous effects of cannabis on the teenage brain. At the same time, the Conservative-dominated House of Commons health committee published a report on the harms of marijuana. In what was surely a complete coincidence, one of its recommendations suggested tackling the problem by launching a public-awareness ad campaign.

Are we really prepared to believe that a TV commercial will stop teens from smoking weed with their friends? Considering that the threat of going to jail hasn't deterred 30 per cent of 15-year-olds from trying marijuana, an advertising campaign isn't likely to do the trick.

But there is a way to effect real, positive change. And that's by implementing a careful, well-crafted and tightly controlled legalization framework (far tighter than that in place around alcohol).

A look at tobacco rates illustrates what an effective, evidence-based policy of harm reduction can accomplish.

In 1965, more than half of boys and nearly 40 per cent of girls age 15-19 reported smoking tobacco. By 2012, the smoking rate among 15- to 19-year-olds was 11 per cent, the lowest ever recorded by Health Canada.

Unfortunately, the marijuana debate has become so politicized that a rational conversation is nearly impossible. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has said he will legalize marijuana – and bring in a series of tight controls and regulations – if he becomes prime minister. The Conservative Party saw this as an opening to brand Trudeau as a marijuana advocate who wants to put joints in the hands of kids, and used attack ads to get that message out.

Around the same time, Health Canada asked three major health organizations to sign on to its public-awareness campaign about the dangers of marijuana. The Canadian Medical Association (CMA), the College of Family Physicians of Canada and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada all declined, saying the issue had become a "political football."

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, CMA president Dr. Chris Simpson said that every option, including legalization, should be on the table and that a national dialogue on how to move forward is urgently needed. While the CMA's official policy favours marijuana decriminalization, Simpson said the discussion has evolved so much that all parties – political and otherwise – should work together to find the best solution.

He also criticized those who continue to "cynically manipulate" the marijuana debate.

The case for legalization is growing. Just a few weeks ago, Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the largest hospital and research centre of its kind in the country, adopted a position calling for the legalization and strict regulation of marijuana.

The arguments in favour of legalization are compelling. It would seriously disable the black-market marijuana trade and allow the government to tightly control how and where marijuana is sold. It would also allow the regulation of what ingredients go into cannabis products, eliminating products with excessive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or those laced with other illicit substances.

There is widespread agreement that action is needed to bring down the number of young people using marijuana. The federal government is placing its bets on a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign and more law enforcement.

History has already shown us how that approach will turn out.

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