As Canadians brace for the great unknown with the launch of legal cannabis sales Wednesday, the most searing question of all might hinge on how the new laws will impact the youngest among us.
Legalization means a green light for adults to use cannabis for pleasure, as they do alcohol. But it also comes with a gigantic red stop sign for anyone under 19, including penalties harsher than ever before — up to 14 years in prison — for adults caught selling to minors.
There are no penalties under federal law for minors under 18 who possess up to five grams, but each province gets to tweak the rules.
Ontario has set the legal age at 19 — and it has scotched the five-gram rule, meaning minors cannot legally possess any amount. So here in Ontario teenagers (anyone over 12 but under 19) who are busted for possession can be given a provincial offences ticket of $200.
Additionally, teens caught with larger amounts (more than five grams) or caught sharing with other minors aged 12 to 18 can be charged under the Youth Criminal Justice Act. That would place them in youth court, which could lead to a variety of outcomes, including diversion programs that are intended to avoid the lifelong stain of a criminal record.
For those who paint themselves skeptical — and if you’ve glanced at social media lately, you’ve likely noticed rising fury, and the not uncommon refrain, “What was Justin Trudeau thinking?!” — the not-for-minors hammer embedded in the new law may come as a surprise. It’s easy to get lost with so many stories circulating about legal weed.
Yet rewind to 2013, when Trudeau first began talking to Canadians about legalization: it’s clear this was his thinking all along.
In one especially vivid argument with a mother during a stop in Steinbach, Man., Trudeau placed kids at the heart of his case for change.
“We have a war on drugs that isn’t working. We’re funnelling billions of dollars into criminal organizations and gangs. We’re having kids access pot easier than they access alcohol. We need to realize prohibition just isn’t working.”
The mom raised the gateway argument — that legal pot would send a message of tolerance, effectively inviting young people to try it and perhaps go beyond to experiment with other, potentially lethal substances. Trudeau countered that legalization and a regime of government control, coupled with tougher penalties against trafficking to minors, would effectively close the gateway.
“Yes, the gateway argument is one that keeps coming back,” he said. “And that’s why it’s so important to keep it out of the hands of our teenagers.
“That’s why this current prohibition, which doesn’t keep it out of the hands of our teenagers, needs to stop. We need to make sure that we are protecting our kids from accessing drugs — but the way to do that is by controlling it and giving up on this current prohibition.”
But will it work? The question teeters into the unknown, as Canada becomes to first of its G7 peers to legalize nationwide, with no hard empirical evidence to say either way.
One clue can be found in recent data from the U.S., where nine states now have legalized recreational cannabis. A federal survey last December showed a significant drop in adolescent use of cannabis in Colorado, with slightly more than 9 per cent of teens aged 12 to 17 using marijuana monthly in 2015 and 2016.
Colorado, which led the U.S. in opening recreational marijuana markets in 2014, also shifted to tougher penalties for adults who sell to minors. But felony charges in Colorado come with up to four years in prison — less than a third of the maximum sentence Canada is empowering judges to impose.
Canadian parents with kids on the cusp of their life-shaping teenage years may take some degree of comfort in at least two of Trudeau’s points.
Firstly, the bar, as it exists now, is low, with illegal cannabis easily found by any teen who wants it. While there is no evidence that significantly tougher penalties will reduce access — and a century of prohibition suggests the threat of jail simply has never before slowed the flow of pot among the young — the status quo is laughably ineffective.
Secondly, Canada’s prime minister has skin in the game, as the father of three kids aged 10, 9 and 4. In vowing to navigate minors away from cannabis, the success or failure of legalization is likely to have not just political but personal meaning in the years ahead.
Experts in cannabis science say there is much still to be learned about the effects of THC on teenage brains and a surge in research in the coming years is likely to fill in many of the blanks.
In the meantime, the Canadian Paediatric Society is offering parents a guide on the various risks specific to young people, including new guidance on what to do if a child unintentionally ingests cannabis products purchased by Mom or Dad.
For parents who want to read more deeply, the U.S. National Academy of Science, in 2017, tabled an impressive 500-page report on the current state of evidence on the health effects of cannabis.
One area of controversy in medical research involves the word “overdose” in relation to cannabis. A recent CBC headline warning of overdose sparked widespread outrage, with some respondents noting that while it is rare but possible to drink a lethal dose of alcohol in a single sitting, there is not a single known fatality from ingesting too much cannabis.
Another impressive piece of recent research worthy of attention emerged in June in a meta-analysis and review of 69 cross-sectional studies into cognitive dysfunction in adolescents and young adults who reported frequent cannabis use.
The findings showed a “small but significant overall effect size for reduced cognitive functioning” among frequent cannabis users. The finding also suggested that cognitive deficits are substantially diminished with abstinence from cannabis for longer than 72 hours.
The study’s lead author, Prof. J. Cobb Scott of the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, said the problem with cross-sectional studies is “you only capture a point in time. You are capturing people after they’ve already started using a substance, so they don’t give you any insight into whether the substance causes cognitive deficits.”
But that too is being addressed in a massive and unprecedented American effort now underway known as ABCD — the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study, which is tracking 7,500 children starting as preteens, before a substance use begins, and continuing to track them for years.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health project is expected to reveal deep, longitudinal understanding of how various drugs, including cannabis, impact mental health and cognitive functioning in young people.
“If mental health research has taught us anything, it’s that group effects don’t always apply to the individual — and that there’s substantial variability that can be affected by lots of different factors, from social-economic status to things that happen in one’s upbringing,” Cobb told the Star.
“So there are probably individuals who are more vulnerable to the effects of cannabis and individuals who are less vulnerable, in terms of brain functioning.
“So a lot of the future research — and it will take larger samples, really big studies — need to look at what factors are likely to increase or decrease that risk because cannabis, like any psychoactive substance, does have risks — we know some of them but we don’t know the things that modify those risks for certain individuals. That’s the kind of sophisticated understanding we need to explore going forward.”
What would Cobb tell a Canadian parent today, when such research is not yet available?
“That’s a tough one … as with anything, you want to talk to your kids about the known risks and also what might increase those risks. And because we don’t know that much yet about the risk of early use of cannabis, the longer you can delay (cannabis use), the better.
“But you should include a conversation with your kids if there are known risks — for example if there is a family history of psychosis, if there is a family history of schizophrenia, we know that the use of cannabis — especially early and heavy use — is going to increase one’s risk,” said Cobb.
“Whether kids listen to that or not is a whole other issue. But a frank discussion on the risks and the potential reasons kids might want to use, that can be helpful.”
Mitch Potter is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites