Clearing the Air About Cannabis: Legalization
We recently sat down with Jean-François Crépault, Senior Policy Analyst at the Centre of Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) to talk about cannabis legalization. He leads CAMH’s public policy efforts in the area of substance use, including developing and communicating evidence-based public policy to government and other stakeholders. He is the lead author of the CAMH Cannabis Policy Framework, which made the case for health-focused regulation of cannabis and has shaped debate around public health approaches to substance use in Canada.
Read on to find out about the reasoning behind legalization and what this means for young people.
Ophea: What can you tell us about why non-medical cannabis was legalized last year?
JF Crépault: Justin Trudeau promised in 2013 that, if elected, the Liberal Party of Canada would legalize the use of cannabis for non-medical purposes. (Medical cannabis has been legally available since 2001.) The rationale was two-fold: “to keep marijuana out of the hands of children, and the profits out of the hands of criminals.” The legislation introduced to legalize and regulate cannabis followed an approach that prioritizes health.
Ophea: Is cannabis a harmful substance?
JF Crépault: Cannabis use definitely comes with risks. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the main psychoactive component of cannabis. Using cannabis with higher THC levels leads to greater short-term impairment and also increases the risk of developing problems in the longer term – especially mental health issues. Most people who use cannabis won’t experience harm, but there are things that greatly increase the risks – notably using it frequently (daily or near daily) and beginning to use it early in life.
Ophea: So cannabis is more harmful for youth than adults?
JF Crépault: The developing brain is particularly vulnerable to cannabis-related harm, so adolescents and young adults (up to about 25 years old) are at higher risk.
Ophea: What does legalization mean for youth?
JF Crépault: Before legalization, Canadian youth had one of the highest rates of youth cannabis use in the world. Legalizing it means, for one thing, that youth (as well as adults) are no longer subject to criminal sanctions for possession and use. That’s positive.
Legalization allows us to regulate cannabis itself and to disseminate messages about reducing the risks of cannabis use. It makes it easier to spread the message that young people should consider delaying cannabis, and if they’re already using, they may want to take steps to reduce risk: consume less frequently, use products lower in THC, avoid smoking it (vaping, for example, is less harmful than smoking), and avoid driving after consuming.
Of course the only way to completely avoid the risks is not to use it; in that sense, abstinence is the safest choice. But for many youth (and adults), that isn’t realistic.
Ophea: Are there safeguards in place for youth?
JF Crépault: There are several safeguards in place, including: a minimum age of 19; heavier penalties for providing cannabis to a minor; restrictions on advertising and promotion; strict labelling requirements (all products must be sold in plain, standardized packaging) and new laws around cannabis-impaired driving.
Evidence from other jurisdictions suggests that legalizing cannabis doesn’t necessarily lead to more youth using it. The idea is to make cannabis legally available to adults without encouraging youth to use it, and without commercializing it through flashy packaging and marketing.
Ophea: What are the challenges going forward?
JF Crépault: It’s important that youth (and adults!) understand that legalizing cannabis doesn’t mean it’s totally safe. Rather, legalizing and regulating cannabis means we can more openly talk about the risks and more effectively address them.
One challenge will be raising public awareness that driving high, aside from being illegal, is a bad idea. Research shows that it does significantly impair people’s reflexes and motor skills for several hours.
Finally, it will be important that governments stand firm with their restrictions on cannabis marketing and promotion. We know that exposure to tobacco and alcohol advertising make youth more likely to consume those substances, and we don’t want that to occur with cannabis.
Thank you to JF Crépault from the Centre of Addiction and Mental Health for answering our questions about cannabis legalization.
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Ophea and the Provincial System Support Program at CAMH