Protecting kids: Can Canada make marijuana uncool?

The Liberal government is promising a marijuana legalization regime that emphasizes public health more than a free market.

The emphasis on the need to legalize marijuana to keep it out of the hands of youth has been a common theme for the Liberal party since they formally adopted a legalization policy in 2015.

While traditionally many legalization activists have lobbied for a repeal of prohibition because of what is often described as the relative harmlessness of marijuana, especially in relation to other legal drugs like alcohol or tobacco, the current government's approach arguably seeks to achieve many of the same ends prohibition has attempted to achieve.

Marijuana Legalization Canada

Prohibition, goes the argument, has failed not only because the criminalization of personal use is costly, counterproductive, and unevenly enforced, but because it has done little to prevent kids from using weed and suffering associated harms. And sub culture and now even pop-culture references that are awash in references to casual cannabis use are certainly testament to the degree to which cannabis use is seen as very normal, especially among youth, regardless of the legal issues surrounding it.

Canadian kids love weed

The percentage of youth who report using cannabis in Canada has often been cited as the highest in the developed world. According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (CCSA), the number of youth (22%) and young adults (15-24) (26%) who reported using marijuana in 2013 was more than double that of adults 25 and older (8%) according to Statistics Canada’s Canadian Tobacco, Alcohol and Drug Survey (CTADS).

According to a recent report released by UNICEF, Canadian kids are the most frequent consumers of cannabis in the world. The study points out that while countries like Finland, Germany, Norway and Sweden have cannabis use rates often well under 10%, the rate for Canada’s young people is 28%. Health Canada data from 2011 says the average age of youth being introduced to Canada is about 15.

from CCSA's The Effects of Cannabis Use during Adolescence

The CCSA's 2013 study "What Canadian Youth Think about Cannabis" notes that there is an apparent connection between the perceived lack of risks of cannabis use and the high rates of reported use. "Of particular concern is recent research suggesting that Canada’s youth do not have the knowledge they need about the risks associated with this drug to make informed decisions."

Their 2013 study "What Canadian Youth Think about Cannabis" also emphasized the relationship between a perceieved norlmacy of cannabis use in society in general with a high rate of reprted use by Canadian youth.

"(Y)outh have an agreed-upon language and strong belief system that governs their understanding of the use and misuse of cannabis. Prevention efforts may be strengthened by giving more consideration to the youth culture of cannabis and by adopting the cannabis-specific language they use."

Liberal Policy

This, plus the need to remove criminal sanctions from adult cannabis consumers, is echoed by the Liberals’ official messaging on the issue. In part, from the Liberals’ website:

Canada’s current system of marijuana prohibition does not work. It does not prevent young people from using marijuana and too many Canadians end up with criminal records for possessing small amounts of the drug.

We will remove marijuana consumption and incidental possession from the Criminal Code, and create new, stronger laws to punish more severely those who provide it to minors, those who operate a motor vehicle while under its influence, and those who sell it outside of the new regulatory framework.

We will create a federal/provincial/territorial task force, and with input from experts in public health, substance abuse, and law enforcement, will design a new system of strict marijuana sales and distribution, with appropriate federal and provincial excise taxes applied.


In a recent interview with Maclean's on the Hil, Minister Philpott responded to questions about legalization, again focussing on the need to mitigate risks and potential harms.

“The questions are who will have licence to produce marijuana, where will it be sold, what kind of public education program will be put in place, what other ways we can make sure that people are aware of the risks, potential risks associated with the use of marijuana, what are the considerations in terms of making sure that people are safe, there are no concerns in terms of impairment and driving, etc. So there is a very long list of questions.

“We need a regulatory framework around the distribution and access to marijuana, because of the fact we’re concerned about the rates of use in children and youth and because of the fact that the profits are currently going into the hands of criminal organizations. It’s a regulatory framework that will address those two problems most robustly.”

In an interview with CBC on April 14, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the government intends to announce their legalization task force, which will involve the provinces and municipalities “in the next several weeks.” Bill Blair, the former Toronto Police Chief and current parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Justice, has been announced as the head of that task force.

Technically, the lead ministers on the legalization file are Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and Health Minister Jane Philpott. As parliamentary secretary for Ms. Wilson-Raybould, Blair has been given the lead role on the file.

“[Mr.] Blair’s experience and background in public safety will be a great asset to the government’s work to ensure a careful and thoughtful approach to the legalization and regulation of marijuana,” Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s spokesman said in a statement.

Blair, in an interview on CBC's Cross Country Checkup, again echoed the public health and safety approach his government is taking, using more "commercial" systems like Colorado and Washington as an example of what his own government seeks to avoid:

"We've seen a number of states, Colorado, Washington for example, that legalized as a result of referendum in their jurisdictions, and they implemented regulatory regimes and they had various degrees of success."

"Quite frankly I would describe their regulatory models as basically commercial models, and I think what is unique about the Canadian approach -and appropriate about the Canadian approach- is we're very much focussed on a public health framework for the regulation of marijuana, focusing primarily on the health and safety of Canadians. We believe that through that model we can do a better job of protecting Canadians and protecting our communities."

Several other politicians involved in the legalization process also echo these sentiments. While not all provincial health ministers have weighed in on marijuana legalization, some have, and some have extensive health and wellness and harm reduction backgrounds in relation to cannabis.

British Columbia

Terry Lake, British Columbia's health minister, recently returned from the Cannabis Science and Policy Summit in New York City April 17-18, saying his belief that legalization is the better tool to help combat youth use of marijuana had been strengthened.

The health minister said the event helped further affirm for him that prohibition has failed at preventing young people from using cannabis.

Lake said the message was reinforced by neurologists and psychiatrists at the conference that “marijuana can have really aggressive impacts on the developing brain.” He also criticized Canada's “Wild West” of unregulated marijuana dispensaries and said he's ready to see new rules and regulations that can better inform consumers.

The two day conference included about 100 speakers from the US, Canada and beyond, including policy experts, politicians, educators, dispensary owners, producers and much more. Subjects covered varied from cannabis and drugged driving, non-medical product development & regulation and impact of cannabis on the brain, to learning from the Dutch coffee shop model and the drug war in Mexico.

Among the representatives from Canada were Donald MacPherson, Director, Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, Lynda Balneaves, Associate Professor, University of Toronto, Brendan Kennedy, Chief Executive Officer, Privateer Holdings, Dan Sutton, Founder and Managing Director, Tantalus Labs and Brian Emerson, Medical Consultant, BC Ministry of Health.

The event was timed to precede the UN General Assembly's Special Session on drugs (UNGASS) in New York City from 19-21 April 2016. Canada's Federal Health Minister, Jane Philpott, spoke at the assembly, delivering the Federal government's promise to present legislation to legalize marijuana in the Spring of 2017. Philpott also emphasized the need to legalize marijuana in order to mitigate the harm to the public, namely young people, while also removing criminal sanctions on adult users:

"We will introduce legislation in spring 2017 that ensures we keep marijuana out of the hands of children and profits out of the hands of criminals," she told the assembled delegates. "While this plan challenges the status quo in many countries, we are convinced it is the best way to protect our youth, while enhancing public safety."

According to the Merrit Herald, British Columbia's medical health officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, has been named as a representative on a federal panel to study legalization. Dr. Kendall has been BC's first and only Provincial Health Officer since 1999, and has recently called for the decriminalization of all drugs. He has also advocated for the legalization of marijuana.

Prior to his appointment as BC's PHO, Perry spent six years as Medical Officer of Health for The City of Toronto, where he helped pioneer programs for HIV/AIDS and drug abuse prevention and established harm reduction as city policy for substance abuse, as well as city tobacco control by-laws. He also helped establish Canada's first needle exchange program in the late 1980's.

In 2012 Dr Kendall, along with his counterpart, Nova Scotia Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Robert Strang, released a paper that called for a 'health-based strategy' to legalization, rather than criminalization. The paper said prohibition was ineffective at preventing people from using cannabis and that the then-Harper government should look at taxing and regulating instead.

"The fact cannabis is illegal doesn't diminish access rates. The so-called war on drugs has not achieved its stated objective of reducing rates of drug use. It's universally available in B.C. and the supply is controlled largely by criminal enterprise," Kendall told The Sun in 2012.


Alberta’s health Minister, Sara Hoffman has echoed the same sentiment after attending a meeting with provincial and territorial health ministers in Vancouver earlier this year:

“There were concerns raised around the table with respect to making sure that (legalization of marijuana) is done in the safest possible way to minimize any possible impact on young people … and to ensure we’re prepared to address the possibility of drug-impaired drivers,” Ganley said. “I think we’ll be moving forward but in a way that is collaborative and in a way that’s very careful.”


Dustin Duncan, Minister of Health in the Saskatchewan Government has made no public comments on the subject.


Sharon Blady is the Manitoba Minister of Healthy Living and Seniors. She has made no public comment on the subject.


Ontario’s health minister, Eric Hoskins has done his best to stay out of the legalization conversation, although he has said in the past that he supports the the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in their 2014 call for legalization.

From the 2014 report:

“Cannabis use is risky – and some individuals are particularly vulnerable – but prohibition has not succeeded in preventing cannabis use or mitigating its harms. On the contrary, it has exacerbated the health harms of cannabis and created costly social ones as well. Legalizing and strictly regulating cannabis allows for more control over the risk factors associated with cannabis ‐ related harm.

To reduce harm, legalization of cannabis is a necessary – but not a sufficient – condition. It must include effective controls on availability and regulations that steer users towards less harmful products and practices. It must be embedded in a comprehensive strategy with a strong prevention focus and a range of interventions aimed at groups at higher risk of harm, such as youth and people with a personal or family history of mental illness.”


Quebec Health Minister Gaétan Barrette hasn’t commented much on the issue of legalization, but did caution against doctor’s recommending cannabis for medical purposes in the past. He noted it has not gone through the usual approval process for prescription drugs and called Canada’s medical marijuana system an ‘experiment’.

New Brunswick

New Brunswick Health Minister Victor Boudreau has made no public comments on legalization.

Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia’s Health Minister Leo Glavine has also not commented publicly on legalization, but he has raised concerns with some aspects of Canada’s medical cannabis access program. Glavine also helped announced a provincial Health Education Drug Prevention program for students in grades 7-9. Glavine says the program will help to combat what he has called the devastating effects of cannabis and alcohol and prescription drug abuse on young people.

Prince Edward Island

PEI Health Minister Doug Currie has also focussed extensively on lowering rates of drug abuse by youth in his province, and said he was not surprised by a 2011 survey that showed the number of Island teens using cannabis and other drugs went up in 2010-2011 while alcohol and tobacco use was dropping.

Newfoundland and Labrador

Minister of Health and Community Services for Newfoundland and Labrador, Dr. John Haggie is a former surgeon and the former president of the 75,000-member Canadian Medical Association. The CMA has taken a cautious approach with medical marijuana, and as its president in 2011, Haggie expressed concerns with the proposed changes to Canada’s medical marijuana program that would move authorization for the drug from Health Canada to doctors.

Will it work?

While the full list of members in the Liberals’ proposed Federal task force is still unknown, it’s likely most if not all of the Provincial Health Ministers will be at the table. It’s worth noting the emphasis many have placed on harm reduction policies and lower youth use rates of all drugs, including cannabis.

While the popular perception of legalization probably reflects one of  the recent, massive 420 rallies in cities like Vancouver and Toronto, it’s very possible it will look much more like how the government treats legal products like alcohol and tobacco: as a public health risk to be managed and mitigated, but without criminalizing responsible use among adults.

How the government will go about establishing a legal, regulatory program that does a better job of reducing youth rates of use remains to be seen, but emerging evidence from the US does appear to confirm that legalization does not cause an increase in youth use.

Marijuana Legalization Canada

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  1. Stu Reply

    Excellent work and a great read! Thanks David Brown!