Cannabis in Canada Pt 5

Cannabis in Canada: A Primer. Part Five.

Part Five: The Debate over Age Requirements

One of the statistics most readily cited as a reason for the the need to legalize cannabis is that the United Nations Children’s Fund study found that Canadian adolescents have the highest rate of cannabis use among 29 advanced economies in the world. Conservative Senators have pointed out that it is unclear what data this study used to assert this conclusion, but the concern for youth has been clearly articulated as a priority and underlying concern for Bill C-45. This was also emphasized heavily in the task force recommendations.

However, the age at which one can purchase, possess and grow cannabis has raised a great deal of controversy. The federal government set a minimum age of 18 for possession and growth of cannabis. Most of the provinces have set the minimum age at 19 (with the exception of Alberta and Quebec, which have set the minimum age at 18) in order for alignment with laws around alcohol.

Health officials and researchers were strongly advocating for a minimum age of 21 or higher. Public health officials reported that information gleaned from experience regulating tobacco and alcohol, as well as from jurisdictions in the US, suggest 21 is a more appropriate age. The Canadian Medical Association was advocating for a minimum age of 21 years. However, if based solely on scientific evidence, it noted that an age of 25 would be best, as there are a number of health risks to youth who are regular cannabis users. Alberta Health Services suggested 21 and recommended the province use further legislation as an opportunity to consider raising the ages to buy tobacco and liquor.

However, advocates for a harmonized policy with the age of access set at 18 years argue this is the appropriate age for two reasons: first, it will help to divert youth from illicit markets, and second, it will prompt an earlier start for cannabis prevention and education. Some health scientists have argued that setting the age of access higher based on scientific evidence neglects the social costs of a criminal record for cannabis. Additionally, if the age is set higher, youth will continue to access cannabis through the black market, where the safety and quality of the product are unknown.

The issue around age is contentious, but this is not surprising as it is central to a number of competing interests. Time will tell how age will intersect with the success of the objectives of the legislation and to what extent there is interprovincial variation.

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Photo credit: Chris Benson from Unsplash.

- By Heather Webster