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Ontario's cannabis legislation is too strict to sensibly protect youth

Cannabis. Photo: Interiorrain/flickr

On September 8, 2017, Ontario made headlines as the first Canadian provincial government to announce plans for cannabis retail and distribution. Not falling far from the Ontario government's current monopoly on alcohol sales, cannabis will be sold through 150 government-run small storefront retail outlets (independent from current 600-plus "LCBO" liquor outlets) and a government-run centralized online order system.

Government control over sales has been painted as the only way to ensure minors are not accessing cannabis. In a time when Ontarians' support for the LCBO is declining and alcohol sales are slowly being decentralized, this distribution model certainly isn't the only way to "protect young people." For example, we have seen through peer-reviewed studies, that Colorado's dispensary system can successfully ID and deny sales to minors. A mixed-model approach -- one which allows for both government distribution and a limited number of regulated, licensed retail stores -- could actually do more to curb the illicit market, and it's likely what most Ontarians want to see.

Further, the continued strong emphasis on enforcement and closing down current retail cannabis stores is alarming. Most of those getting arrested are young people who serve as frontline workers in many of these shops all across Canada. Being paid a minimum wage, they're likely going to be some of the last soldiers wounded in this war. Enforcement has been generally ineffective, with shops reopening in days, and yet raids continue weekly. Some U.S. jurisdictions have found innovative ways to work with those previously engaged in the unregulated industry (e.g., sellers) in a way that honours the principles of social justice and recognizes the years of activism that contributed to this rich culture of social movement. For example, California has included a provision to allow certain cannabis-related convictions to be retroactively expunged for those who were previously affected by prohibition, and Oakland, California has created a system to prioritize these individuals as participants in the legal cannabis business. This approach is beneficial for all parties, as it also contributes to the overall effectiveness of legalization policy in curbing the illegal market.

The Ontario government did get a few things right. Setting the age of access to 19, and harmonizing it with alcohol, makes sense. In all U.S. jurisdictions, the age of access is harmonized with alcohol sales. Not only is this practical, but an age limit which is too high could effectively criminalize our young adults, the largest segment of cannabis users. Protecting youth should also include giving young adults access to a regulated and tested supply, purchased at a legal storefront, and access to harm reduction and education.

There was also a glimmer of hope when it comes to licensed consumption spaces (e.g., vapour lounges), which the government has promised it to "look at in the future." Under its current plan, Ontario will combine some of the harshest pieces of both alcohol and tobacco policy, where the result is no consumption permitted anywhere except private residences. On face value, this may make sense, but what does this mean for people who live in shared accommodation, co-operatives, apartments, condos and those who have no fixed address  -- will it serve to criminalize the most vulnerable? There is especially concern that homeless or marginally housed youth, who already face a constellation of health and social harms, will be further marginalized and criminalized by this legislation simply because they won't have a safe and legal space to use cannabis.

It was promising to see that the government intends to keep the sale of alcohol and cannabis separate -- a recommendation for which public health experts advocated tirelessly, given concerns about encouraging risky co-use of these substances. Interestingly, there is evidence that young people may substitute alcohol for cannabis. In light of the alarming rates of binge drinking among youth and young adults, and given that alcohol is responsible for thousands of deaths among Canadians each year, cannabis is safer by every measure. However, substituting high-risk alcohol consumption for cannabis is unlikely to reach its full potential among young Canadians unless the social spaces (e.g., vapour lounges) are created for that to happen.

Finally, the Ontario government has also promised a public education campaign that is sure to include a major focus on protecting youth from the harms of cannabis. Historically, the educational messages aimed at youth  around cannabis rarely go beyond "just say no." We must acknowledge that youth are currently using cannabis at some of the highest rates in the world under a prohibitive system. Instead of focusing on the unrealistic goal of "protecting" youth by eliminating their cannabis use altogether, we need to ensure that the Ontario government is held accountable for the development of educational tools grounded in the best available evidence about cannabis and the inclusion of strategies to mitigate the potential harms for those who choose to use it.

Ontario's announcement represents the beginning of a long process of legalizing the production and sale of cannabis across Canada. In its current form, the legislation doesn't address the complexities of what it means to actually protect all young people and prioritize their rights to make decisions around their health. Legalization is not a catchall, and it won't solve all our problems, but a "sensible" approach is not always the strictest approach.

Stephanie Lake is a 2017 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation scholar in the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia and a member of the board of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP). She is studying the ways in which cannabis is used among people with long-term experience using other illicit drugs, and how cannabis legalization might affect the health of this population.

Photo: Interiorrain/flickr

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