The newly elected Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government says it’s going to follow through on its promise to raise the legal age for cannabis possession in the province to 21 from 18.
The CAQ won’t have time to change provincial law before legalization takes effect in a week. That means that 18- to 21-year-olds will be able to shop at the Société québécoise du cannabis until legislators get around to “protecting” them.
After that, young adults will have to revert to buying their weed on the black market, as they’ve done since the 1920s – or head over a bridge to Ontario, if it can ever get its retail stores up and running.
The CAQ’s approach – essentially trying to put the genie back in the bottle (or maybe back in the bong?) – is bumbling, but it does provide an opportunity to reflect on an important policy question: What should be the legal age for smoking pot – or, for that matter, doing other things that are potentially bad for your health?
Under federal law, it will be legal, at age 18, to possess up to 30 grams of cannabis (or the equivalent in oil).
But provinces can set their own rules, and most have settled on 19 – the exceptions being Alberta (18) and Quebec (soon 21).
In every province, the legal age for cannabis consumption is the same as for alcohol consumption, again with two exceptions – the drinking age in Manitoba is 18, but the toking age is 19; in Quebec, it’s 18 and 21.
The logic for these varying rules is a bit difficult to follow, especially since alcohol misuse leads to far more health and social problems than pot – and you need look no further than any emergency department on a weekend night to graphically illustrate that reality.
We shouldn’t forget that, while it’s normal for young people to experiment with alcohol and other drugs, the vast majority behave responsibly. In jurisdictions that have legalized cannabis, rates of use have not increased.
The CAQ, during the election campaign, said the higher legal age was necessary because research shows a harmful effect of cannabis on the developing brain up to age 25.
But, if they truly believe that, why not make the legal age 25?
There are a lot of things that are bad for developing brains and bodies – such as cigarettes, alcohol and concussions. Should we also ban hockey – or at least body checking – to age 21? (In Quebec, it’s banned up to age 14.)
And what about cars? Motor vehicle crashes are the No. 1 cause of traumatic brain injury (and death) in young people. Why do we let them drive or even be passengers at 16?
There is no scientific consensus on what pot does to the teenage brain and what level of consumption is “safe” in the adolescent years.
There are two principal concerns.
First, there is a well-documented association between teen pot smoking and psychosis. It appears that cannabis can be a trigger for those who are genetically predisposed to schizophrenia.
The other concern is addiction. The younger someone starts smoking pot, the more likely they are to become heavy users and develop substance-use disorder.
But these are enormously complicated issues.
People who start using drugs at a young age (including cannabis, alcohol and tobacco) tend to have a lot of other stuff going on in their lives; they are often victims of trauma and abuse.
If a 14-year-old is getting stoned every day, it’s hard to imagine how raising the legal age to 21 from 18 will make a difference.
Similarly, if a small percentage of young people have a genetic risk of developing schizophrenia, limiting everyone’s access to the state-run pot store is unlikely to offer much protection.
Ideally, what we want is for everyone to be mature and thoughtful enough to make responsible decisions about drug use, and a whole bunch of other things.
But you can’t create a test for maturity, or write laws that protect everyone from themselves. So we use crude, arbitrary cutoffs such as age.
At 16, you’re old enough to drive a car, leave school and legally consent to sex.
At 18 (sometimes 19), you can vote, get married, buy a gun or go off to war.
Surely if we can trust 18-year-olds with upholding democracy and defending national security, we can trust them to blaze responsibly – or at least as responsibly as older adults.