Protecting the youth, but not listening to the youth

Cannabis legalization is supposed to be about 'protecting the youth', but has anyone actually asked young people what they think?

We’ve heard a lot about legalization in Canada, and the importance of “protecting youth”, but young people have yet to be included in these discussions in a meaningful way. In fact, most articles on legalization and youth have actually focused on adult voices in the industry, and very rarely have we stopped to ask youth how cannabis legalization should unfold in their own best interests. Young people are at the centre of pending legalization: Canada has some of the highest youth cannabis use rates in the world and in Ontario, for example, youth rate cannabis as one of easiest drugs to obtain (46% report that it would be “fairly easy” or “very easy” to obtain), following only alcohol (65%) and tobacco (53%).

I am less convinced that governments, and even mainstream media, actually want to listen to what young people have to say. While Canada should be commended for being one of the only countries at UNGASS this year with an official youth delegate, there was a broader acknowledgement that their voices were being excluded from the official conversation around drug policy reform. For example, youth delegates tweeted about being denied access to panels for no clear reason, although they had the proper ground passes and the room was relatively empty. In other instances, youth reported security often double, even triple, checking their ground passes. Perhaps most shockingly, young people were even being told to “grow up” by older opponents of drug policy reform. While we often draw “protecting youth” as a major priority in legalization legislation, we need to ensure young people are not just an agenda item. Further, what it means to be a young person today is a lot different than in the past, and we can’t assume to know what that is like.

Youth marijuana

I asked four Canadian youth interested in drug policy reform what they thought about upcoming cannabis legalization.

How are youth, in your opinion, currently impacted by the prohibition of cannabis?

Cannabis prohibition has allowed for easy access to cannabis, while creating barriers to and a divide between harm reduction and public health education. With access to fact-based rather than fear-based information about the effects of cannabis, youth may make choices based on knowledge and balanced decision-making instead of curiosity. Prohibition puts youth in vulnerable situations because they obtain cannabis from underground and unregulated sources that may include exposure to dangerous circumstances, or potentially, more dangerous substances. With current regulations, there is also little access to drug checking in terms of “synthetic” forms of cannabis - k2 or spice, which are readily available and used as a replacement for cannabis in some youth social circles. Additionally, for many youth with chronic illnesses, prohibition creates barriers to both having a health professional develop their health plan when they use cannabis, and to having access to high-grade quality cannabis medicine.

- Dessy Pavlova, co-Chair of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy

If we are truly worried about young people, what issues are the most important to you when thinking about youth and potential legalization frameworks?

I think that we have to avoid making the same mistakes that we have done in the past. Regulation without education is not enough, but that education has to be focused on the safe ways of using cannabis instead of just emphasizing the risks and negative consequences. We can’t just go to teenagers and tell them that the only way to prevent unintended pregnancies and the transmission of STDs is sexual abstinence. The same applies to cannabis in my opinion. We have to educate young people in how to use this substance safely in case they choose to do it, despite of them being legally allowed to do so or not.

- Antonio Cillero, Research Engineer & CSSDP board member

I am mainly concerned about the unforeseen consequences in well-intentioned policies, specifically, those which by setting the age limit any higher than alcohol or tobacco inadvertently create a black market for users who are younger than the limit. I think it’s as important to focus on the unforeseen consequences as well as the effects we know legalization will have. The issue is not even primarily one of restricting access but the realization that controlled substances remain easily acquired by those from whom they are prohibited, even in those frameworks that regulate tobacco and alcohol - youth do still acquire cigarettes and alcohol despite age limit requirements. A prolonged public discourse and a policy that is open to cannabis use would facilitate a system that works.

- Dessy

How does the discourse around “protecting youth” in upcoming legalization make you feel?

Thinking about the children often means thinking for them. Further, the discourse does not acknowledge the adults who use these substances without detrimental effects, nor does it seem to protect people of colour who are disproportionately affected by the drug war. Will cannabis legalization mean that people in jail will be immediately released from incarceration? Will they be given support services to make up for the years of imprisonment they have faced? Fortunately, Canada has a much lower conviction rate than the United States for small possession, but that does not discount the negative social impacts of incarcerating people for nonviolent drug offences.

- Alex Betsos, Cofounder of Karmik

The only way to “protect youth” is by facilitating the access to unbiased information about cannabis use. Information will not encourage consumption but prevent dangerous behaviors.

- Antonio

What age do you think is appropriate for legal cannabis purchase?

I think that 19 would be adequate for cannabis sales. It’s inevitable that youth will be able to obtain cannabis at younger ages, though to how many remains the important question. Youth still have access to alcohol and tobacco even though they’re regulated, but there’s good evidence to support the claim that fewer young people will have access to cannabis within a regulated framework. Overall I think the most important impact of legalization will be proper research and therefore education on the nature of cannabis, its uses and where the risks lie. This will allow youth to make decisions based on fact and to develop healthy attitudes towards Cannabis

– Daniel Greig, Trip! volunteer and member of the Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence Students’ Association (CASA)

I would say 19, simply because there is still not a large enough sample of data to determine the effects on the developing brain and body, and it makes sense to follow the same pattern as tobacco and alcohol, both of which are more dangerous. Just as some underage drinkers still have access to alcohol, cannabis will likely reach the hands of underage users - but access will not be as direct or as circumstantially dangerous as it is now. Regulations assure that should an underage drinker get access to alcohol, it will not be illicitly-produced poisonous moonshine. If the regulated industry is able to compete with the underground market in terms of pricing then cannabis users are unlikely to prefer a product of unknown origin and quality over one that goes through careful, government-regulated quality control.  

– Dessy

I would tie it to provincial drinking ages. Ultimately, the provinces are the ones which are going to deal with distribution, not the Federal government, and so it would be in the best interests of the provinces, especially if they want to lower youth alcohol consumption to allow adults to choose what they put in their body. Anything over 19 would just create a stronger black market meaning less control over protecting youth, not to mention lost tax revenue for the provinces.

– Alex

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1 comment

  1. Tim Greenwood Reply

    Thanks so much for this discussion and article. I am part of a Community Drug Strategy in York Region and also part of Province wide network of Municipal Drug Strategies. I totally agree that having young people vitally engaged is essential as the government moves forward on legalization of marijuana. I personally believe that there is much evidence to suggest that early and regular use of marijuana can be detrimental to many young people but also recognize than on the whole it is probably less damaging than alcohol. Really believe in a harm reduction focused approach to legalization and not caving into the pressures of commercial interests seeing Gold in the "Green Rush". Commercialization means creating more demand and like with alcohol and tobacco the majority of sales and profits will be made on the small number of heavily using close to daily users. Many studies show that it is daily use - particularly amongst the young and those with mental health vulnerabilities that is most problematic. Think education, youth engagement and involvement are key.