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For generations, 18-year-old Ontario residents have been legally accessing alcohol in neighbouring Quebec.

After the new Quebec government moved Wednesday to raise the minimum age for cannabis consumption to 21, however, hundreds of thousands of young Quebecers could head west for their legal cannabis fix. The existing age in Quebec is 18 for access to recreational marijuana and, according to Statistics Canada, more than 270,000 Quebec residents are 18, 19 or 20 years old.

That could make for many more trips across the Ottawa River, according to Ken Lester.

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“This time it is going to be happening in reverse,” the McGill University Finance Professor said on the open secret of teens in Ontario and Quebec seeking to get intoxicated in whichever jurisdiction has the lowest minimum age of consumption. “Ottawa should brace for an influx from Gatineau and Hull.”

The Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), which swept to victory in the province’s Oct. 1 election in part on a pledge to raise the minimum age for cannabis consumption from 18 to 21, tabled legislation Wednesday morning to amend the regime put in place by the former Liberal government in June. While the age increase represents the most dramatic departure from the initial policy, the CAQ’s Bill 2 would also ban virtually all public consumption of cannabis products.

“That is the main point of criticism we are getting here,” said Montreal-based lawyer Jason Moscovici, who does work for the cannabis industry. “Certain categories of citizens are being left without options because if they cannot consume in the street or in parks, and they cannot consume at home because a condo board or a landlord has said they cannot… what that really means is by the very nature of these restrictions, you are forcing [cannabis consumers] to commit a crime.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, speaking to reporters in Ottawa before the CAQ bill was tabled in Quebec City, criticized the province’s plan to raise its cannabis age as a move that would encourage more illegal sales.

“It brings up questions, that this week an 18-year-old could go buy cannabis legally, but in a few months may have to go to the Hells Angels to buy it,” he said. “Those are questions the [Quebec] government will have to answer to.”

Just a few hours after the CAQ bill was tabled, officials at the City of Ottawa published a 151-page report recommending cannabis retail stores be allowed to operate in the national capital region. City Council will hold a Dec 13 vote on whether to endorse that recommendation, with the Ontario government giving all municipalities in the province until Jan 22 to decide whether to opt in or out.

“If there is no legal option, organized crime and illegal sellers will continue to fill that void,” Anthony Di Monte, Ottawa’s general manager of emergency and protective services, told Council in his remarks explaining the basis of his positive recommendation.

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Quebec remains the only province to establish a limit on the amount of cannabis a single household can possess, which the previous regime set at 150 grams. Despite the CAQ campaign pledge to reduce that limit by 90 per cent to just 15 grams per household, no change was included in the legislation tabled Wednesday.

Bill 2 still requires approval of the Quebec legislature, though the CAQ majority in the chamber makes that largely a formality, and is expected to take effect within the first few months of 2019. McGill’s Prof. Lester argues the more restrictive regime is unlikely to remain in place for long.

“This is just growing pains, I think we will work through this,” he said. “I can’t imagine it lasting more than a year or so.”

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