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As We Legalize Pot, Let's Protect Our Kids

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Legalization and regulation of marijuana in this country is a virtual certainty. The Prime Minister has promised it and polls enthusiastically support it. The shift away from criminalization is taking longer than expected. We will not have legislation until the spring of 2017. The delay, is, itself, causing some complications But legal pot is coming our way.

I support this initiative. Prohibition has caused more problems than it has solved: folks with criminal records for just using a substance; a booming criminal market run by thugs; sale of degraded substances; and, no revenue for government from an industry that operates in the underworld. At the same time legalization and regulation won't be without problems. One of them is that a small number of users consume a disproportionate amount of this stuff. These individuals can experience severe negative consequences. What's the role of the government in persuading them to be wary?

Another is protecting children. The evidence is clear: kids should not be using pot. Young people aren't just small adults. They are developing mentally, physically, and emotionally in ways that can be significantly harmed by using drugs (including tobacco and alcohol) A report from CAMH, recommending legalization and regulation of marijuana, nevertheless, warned of the damage that this drug can do to children, including use of it being associated with mental health issues.

What we do know is that the present regime of prohibition has done a very bad job of keeping kids who are at risk away from weed. Statistics from UNICEF for 2013 ranked Canada number one among developed countries regarding use by adolescents: almost 30%.

Regulation of marijuana, even as it makes pot more widely available, should, at the same time, better protect kids. At present pot is sold in the illicit market by individuals who are breaking the law to do so. Many of those who traffic in such illegality are quite happy to include young people as customers. Regulating weed will put in place a very different framework. Marijuana will be available to adults under strictly regulated conditions. Anyone operating outside them will be subject to stiff penalties. Selling to children would clearly be in breach of those requirements.

But the best way to curtail consumption among kids is to convince those at risk that staying away from pot at a young age is the thing to do. Education can be key. But are programs focussed on persuading children to steer clear of substances effective? To date the evidence is mixed but experts who have examined these issues have suggestions for improvement.

The Open Society recently assessed many of these programs . It concluded that programs that try to keep youths abstinent, in particular by exaggerating the harms of drugs, are unrealistic and can even be counterproductive. For example, in the United States there was a widely implemented school based drug prevention program called D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education). Its hallmarks were a message of abstinence -- "just say no" -- and the portrayal of all drugs as immediately dangerous. Yet independent evaluations concluded that it did not lead to greater levels of abstinence or to even delaying initial substance use among young ones.

The report by the Open Society goes on to make recommendations aimed at making these programs more effective. For example, they should be clear about the realities of drug use and factors that can lead to problematic consumption. The programs should be rigorously tested before being implemented and, then, independently assessed regarding effectiveness once put into place. We should also take note of anti-smoking campaigns that have made a lot of progress, including in terms of persuading the young ones that smoking is not for them even as these initiatives struggle to keep children from vaping.

Legalizing and regulating weed is the way to go. But we should be alive to the complications that will ensue. At the very top of the list of issues that must be addressed is the protection of our kids.