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Health Minister Rona Ambrose denies that the government’s anti-marijuana campaign is an attack on the Liberal Party’s position that marijuana should be decriminalized.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Urging young people not to smoke pot has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with public health, the federal Health Minister says.

Rona Ambrose was reacting to a decision by leading physician groups to distance themselves from Health Canada's new $6-million marijuana smoking cessation campaign.

The College of Family Physicians of Canada, the Canadian Medical Association and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada took the stand after Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau complained that the Conservative government was using public money to attack his party's position that marijuana should be decriminalized.

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"Let me be clear: Telling kids not to smoke pot is not a partisan attack on Justin Trudeau by Health Canada. It is a sound public-health policy backed by science," Ms. Ambrose said Monday. "Whether pot is legal or illegal, the health risks of smoking marijuana remain the same."

One in five high-school students smokes marijuana, according to the Canadian youth smoking survey. The average age of initiation to pot smoking is 14. And, according to a Unicef survey, Canada has the highest rate of youth pot smoking in the world.

"These stats are alarming," the Health Minister said, stressing that consuming cannabis poses a real danger to the developing brains of young people.

Louis Francescutti, president of the Canadian Medical Association, which represents the country's 80,000 physicians, said there is no doubt that marijuana poses a health risk. "On marijuana, the evidence is irrefutable: It's dangerous," he said.

Dr. Francescutti will continue to warn Canadians – and young people in particular – of the risks, but the organization felt uncomfortable with the Health Canada campaign.

"That campaign took a twist that was a little political and our members did not want us to be involved in something like this," he said.

In her speech to the delegates to the CMA General Council in Ottawa, Ms. Ambrose also spoke of her government's efforts to crack down on prescription drug abuse and the overuse of opioids in particular.

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"Too many people are abusing prescription drugs and too many people are suffering and dying as a result," she said.

The minister said one million young people used prescription drugs recreationally in the past year, which she described as a "frightening" number. Ms. Ambrose noted that the controversial advertising campaign will target misuse of prescription drugs as well as marijuana.

In response to criticism that the government was targeting marijuana when alcohol causes much more harm to young people, the minister said Health Canada has long conducted public-health campaigns to counter alcohol abuse and misuse among young people and will continue to do so in the future.

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