Will legalizing pot keep it out of the hands of kids?
Liberals say a legal cannibis market for adults will decrease the number of young people getting high. Colorado officials disagree... saying legalization hasn't had much of an impact either way.
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During the 2015 election, the Liberals campaigned on a plan to greenlight marijuana for recreational use to keep it of the hands of children and the profits out of the hands of criminals.
"We are moving forward to ensure that we keep ... cannabis out of the hands of young people," said Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould on May 1, 2017.
The party's election platform said Canada's current approach — criminalizing people for possession and use — traps too many Canadians in the justice system for minor offences.
Last month, the government spelled out its plans in legislation, setting sweeping policy changes in motion.
The new law proposes setting the national minimum age to legally buy cannabis at 18 years old. It will be up to the provinces should they want to restrict it further.
Is it true, as Wilson-Raybould and the Liberals suggest, that legalization will in fact keep cannabis out of the hands of kids?
The statement is mostly inaccurate but contains elements of truth. Here's why:
There is no doubt cannabis is in the hands of young people today.
In fact, Canada has one of the highest rates of teenage and early-age adulthood use of marijuana, says Dr. Mark Ware, the vice-chair of the federally-appointed task force on cannabis and a medicinal marijuana researcher at McGill University.
"We don't anticipate that this is going to eliminate it; but the public health approach is to make it less easy for young adolescents, young kids, to access cannabis than it is at the moment," he said.
Bonnie Leadbeater, a psychology professor at the University of Victoria who specializes in adolescent behaviour, said as many as 60 per cent of 18-year-olds have used marijuana at some point in their lives.
The aim of a regulated, controlled system of legalized cannabis is to make it more difficult for kids to access pot, Ware said, noting the principle goal is to delay the onset of use.
So will a recreational market for adults coupled with a regulatory regime really keep pot out of the hands of kids?
Public health experts — including proponents of legalization — say that probably won't happen.
"I don't exactly know what they are planning to do to keep it out of the hands of young people and I think some elaboration of that might be helpful," Leadbeater said. "It is unlikely that it will change ... it has been very, very accessible to young people."
Benedikt Fischer, a University of Toronto psychiatry professor and senior scientist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, agrees the expectation that legalization will suddenly reduce or eliminate use among young people is counter-intuitive and unrealistic to a large extent.
"The only thing we could hope for is that maybe because it is legal, all of a sudden it is so much more boring for young people that they're not interested in it anymore," he said.
Increasing penalties for people who facilitate access to kids will help discourage law-abiding Canadians from doing so, says Steven Hoffman, director of a global strategy lab at the University of Ottawa Centre for health law, policy and ethics.
"That being said, when there's a drug, there's no foolproof way of keeping it out of the hands of all children," Hoffman said. "For sure, there will still be children who are still consuming cannabis."
Cannabis will not be legal for people of all ages under the legislation, he added, noting this means there may still be a market for criminal activity for cannabis in the form of selling it to children.
In Colorado, officials thought there would be an increase in use as a result of legalization, according to Dr. Larry Wolk, chief medical officer at the Department of Public Health and Environment, but he said there's been no increase among either youth or adults.
Nor has there been a noticeable decrease.
"What it looks like is folks who may have been using illicitly before are using legally now and teens or youth that were using illicitly before, it's still the same rate of illicit use," he said.
Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, said the Liberal government could provide a more nuanced, realistic message about its plans to legalize marijuana.
"To suddenly go over to the rhetoric ... that strict regulation is going to keep it out of the hands of young people doesn't work," he said.
"There's a better chance of reducing the harm to young people through a ... public health, regulatory approach. That's ideally what they should be saying."
Careful messaging around legalized marijuana — like the approach taken by the Netherlands — could make cannabis less of a tempting forbidden fruit for young people, said Mark Haden, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia.
"What we know is that prohibition maximizes the engagement of youth, so if we did it well and skillfully and ended prohibition with a wise approach and made cannabis boring, it would keep it out of the hands of kids," he said.
"It isn't completely baloney, it just hasn't gone far enough in terms of a rich, real discussion. It is just political soundbites."
—with files from Laura Kane
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