12/19/2016 10:12 EST | Updated 12/19/2016 10:12 EST

We Need To Stop Infantilizing Young Adults Over Cannabis Access

Heath Korvola via Getty Images
The small business proceedings of a local marijuana dispensary in Portland, Oregon.

Since the Task Force announced their recommendations for the legalization and regulation of cannabis in Canada last week, the focus has predominantly been on age restrictions, suggested in the report at 18 years old with provincial autonomy to mirror drinking ages.

While the media frames this as "Trudeau OK with Canadians as young as 18 accessing cannabis", I find myself questioning why we continue to speak about young adults who are 18 and 19 as if they are children.

Young adults in Canada who are 18 and 19 make many choices around their health, well-being, and lives, and 18 has been the age when we typically expect young people to engage in these choices: they can vote, join the armed forces, purchase alcohol and tobacco, purchase firearms, get married, have children, and so much more. In fact, in Ontario, age 16 is when youth can legally decide to live alone without a legal guardian, which also deserves a place in this conversation.

But decisions around cannabis use are where we draw the line?

While I don't typically like to use comparisons to alcohol and tobacco, they do provide a framework for assessment that most Canadians understand. In its most basic form, available scientific evidence shows alcohol and tobacco are much worse for one's health and has far worse societal ills, including the massive burden on our health-care system. This research also indicates that we have over estimated the harms of cannabis in the past, and underestimated the harms of substances such as alcohol.

We also need to be more critical of the research that links cannabis use and brain development, in addition to other cognitive impairments. This work has never established that cannabis was the cause of these outcomes, or if it's a part of a variety of vulnerability factors. Most of this work using language strategically, stating that cannabis was "linked to" or that it "may have" led to various outcomes. One study correctly explains, "it remains unclear whether such disadvantages reflect pre-existing differences that lead to increased substances use and further changes in brain architecture and behavioural outcomes."

Where PSAs and abstinence-only education has been shown to be relatively ineffective, a new approach is clearly needed and should start now.

I should also note that much of this research is done with populations of heavy, long-term cannabis users, which isn't a reflection of the typical, occasional cannabis user. While there is also concern about short-term impacts such as short-term memory impairment, there is also available evidence that shows these outcomes are reversed after a period of abstinence. We should hold organizations accountable to make these distinctions clearly to the public, without discounting the importance of this developing research.

More significantly, age restrictions do not reflect when it's safe to initiate use. Advocates of a higher age restriction on cannabis certainly would not also try to convince Canadians that 18 or 19 is a "safe" age to start smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol. What age restrictions do represent is when young people are considered adults who can engage in rational decision-making and are responsible for their own well-being.

With all this focus on age restrictions, what's been notably absent from the conversation is discussions around the creation and implementation of realistic, fact-based drug education that gives people the evidence they need to make informed choices around consumption, without stigmatizing the use of cannabis itself. Where PSAs and abstinence-only education has been shown to be relatively ineffective, a new approach is clearly needed and should start now.

Further, we need to remember that high age limits in and of themselves do not deter young people and adults from using cannabis. High age limits would do nothing more than criminalize more Canadians, particularly when considering ages 18-29 is the highest cannabis using population in our country and they simultaneously hold the highest rates of cannabis related charges (with a majority for possession alone). In order to truly protect our young people, we should look to a model that tries to move as much illicit sales away from the black market and doesn't look to criminalize our young adults. If adults do want to use cannabis, it should come from a regulated, legal and transparent supply.

Make no mistake, 18 and 19-year-olds are adults by every measure in Canadian society. Setting this as the age limit for cannabis access is a common sense approach to the legalization of cannabis, because it truly serves to minimize harms and protect young people. We need to start thinking of "potential harms" with a wider lens, and prioritize the fact that the criminalization of Canadians for cannabis has shown to be far worse than use itself.

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