Jenna Valleriani is a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto, and strategic adviser for Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy.
The federal government announced Thursday that it would create a task force to handle marijuana legalization. Led by former deputy prime minister Anne McLellan, the task force will feature nine individuals with varying expertise. In the announcement, Health Minister Jane Philpott declared the legalization of cannabis will be "comprehensive and evidence-based", and yet in the same breath, reminded Canadians "marijuana has negative effects on young brains and brain development in adolescence".
What Dr. Philpott didn't acknowledge is that this body of scientific evidence is still being debated in the scientific literature: it's incomplete and has never actually established that marijuana is the cause in these outcomes of cognitive deficiency. We have also never established what the actual duration of that impairment may be.
Meanwhile, the protecting youth argument has become the cornerstone of what responsible and restrictive legal cannabis access will look like. However, under the guise of trying to protect young people, history illustrates we often end up criminalizing and victimizing them even further. The reiteration of this "concrete evidence" has led some to debate whether cannabis should follow provincial drinking ages, or if access should only be afforded to those who are 25 years of age and older.
While I am not discounting the importance of this developing research, we also know young people in our country have some of the highest rates of cannabis use in the world. In Ontario, for example, roughly 20 per cent of adolescents aged 12-17 reported using cannabis at least once in 2013, and that number is as high as 40 per cent when looking at those aged 18-29.
This research also draws on samples of heavy, long-term users. To put that into perspective, of the 20 per cent of teens who reported using cannabis in 2013, roughly 2 per cent reported using cannabis daily. Using cannabis once, or even occasionally, does not equate to this outcome.
Further, 25 would be the highest age limit of any jurisdiction with legal cannabis in the world. What we should really be thinking about is that an age limit as high as 25 will actually end up widening the scope of the criminal justice system by encouraging the access of cannabis through unregulated and more dangerous avenues outside of a legalized system. Young people are already disproportionately affected by cannabis prohibition, particularly marginalized youth, who account for the highest rates of drug-related offences today. This is particularly troubling considering a majority of these charges are for cannabis possession – laws which continue to be enforced today despite legalization on the horizon.
As a colleague recently pointed out, "age limits don't reflect safe initiation of use, but rather an age when we believe people can make reasoned choices about their health and well being." If we trust young people to make these kinds of choices around other legally regulated substances at 18 and 19 years of age in Canada, it follows that they are able to exercise both agency and reasoned decision making in the consumption of cannabis at a similar age.
We ask young people to exercise these reasoned decision making skills every day in their own lives, and sound cannabis policy should reflect this. Some 25-year-old Canadians have mortgages, families, post secondary and graduate degrees, and can join and fight for the Canadian Armed Forces. There's no reason to set cannabis to a higher standard than alcohol and tobacco under a legalized framework.
Setting an age as high as 25, based off incomplete research, is just not sound policy.
By framing the potential for future criminalization and victimization of young people as an effort to make society safer, we miss what it truly means to support youth and prioritize the rights of our young people.