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Age of Access to Legal and Regulated Cannabis

This is the fourth in a series of posts on the Senate’s consideration of Bill C-45, which would legalize and strictly regulate the production, distribution and consumption of cannabis in Canada


What’s this all about?  Bill C-45 sets out a minimum age of 18 for cannabis consumption, purchase, possession and cultivation, and recognizes the authority of provinces and territories to increase this minimum age.  Provinces and territories have chosen to align the minimum age of cannabis consumption with alcohol consumption in their respective jurisdictions (either 18 or 19 years of age).

While Bill C-45 provides for no legal means in which a young person can purchase or acquire cannabis, all provinces with completed implementation plans have decided to eliminate the federal government option of permitting 12 - 18 year-olds to possess up to five grams of cannabis without a criminal penalty.

What does research tell us? Early, frequent and heavy use cannabis use has the potential to cause long lasting, perhaps irreversible, cognitive functioning problems. Some scientific evidence suggests that the human brain matures around 25 years of age and using cannabis before this age can have potentially harmful effects. However, there is also evidence suggesting that delaying the initiation of use to 17 significantly decreases the risk of these harms.

A 2017 study conducted by researchers at the University of Montreal found that adolescents who smoke cannabis as early as age 14 score considerably worse on some cognitive tests and drop out of school at a higher rate than non-smokers. But if they hold off until age 17, they're less at risk and the impairments for younger counterparts are no longer discernible. 

Prevalence of Youth Consumption: According to the Canadian, Tobacco, Alcohol and Drug survey, cannabis remains the most commonly used illicit drug in Canada. In 2015, 21% of young people aged 15-19 used cannabis and 30% aged 20-25 used cannabis. The median age of initiation is 17.

The UN World Drug Report (2016) found that Canadians aged 15-16 reported 28.3% cannabis use in their lifetime and 23.1% in the past year, significantly higher than in most other countries.

What the Task Force on Cannabis Legalization Heard: The Task Force recognized that 20-25 year-olds represent the segment of the population most likely to consume cannabis, and are most likely to be charged with a cannabis-related offence.  The Task Force and members of the HESA committee in the House of Commons heard that setting the bar too high for legal access could result in a variety of unintended consequences, including stranding younger consumers in the illicit market, compromising quality and potency and safety, and risking criminalization.  

Dr. Christina Grant of the Canadian Paediatric Society, who appeared at HESA as a witness, stated in her testimony to HESA that, “on one hand, prohibiting cannabis until the mid-20s would protect adolescents during a period of critical brain development.  On the other hand, adolescents and young adults are already experimenting with marijuana. Aligning the legal age for cannabis with that of other legally controlled substances, notably alcohol and tobacco, would help ensure that youth who have attained age of majority have access to a regulated product with known potency.”

A majority of Canadian health associations agree that a minimum age of 25 would be unrealistic and instead recommend the 18/19 age range established by provinces and territories. These include the Canadian Pediatric Society, Pediatric Chairs of Canada, Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Canadian Public Health Association and the Canadian Mental Health Association.  

Points to consider:

  • Most research points to early and frequent/heavy use of cannabis (and alcohol) being the most significant risk factor for long-term impairment
  • The risk curve associated with brain development appears to extend to age 25 but recent evidence suggests that consumption before age 17 carries the greatest risk of long term impairment
  • It seems logical that the risk to a 13 year-old frequent user of cannabis is greater than for a 19 or 20 year-old occasional user
  • The majority of Canadian medical/health associations support the proposed age of 18/19, although a minority would prefer age 21
  • Users in the 20-24 age range represent the largest cohort of cannabis users. There is a concern that prohibiting access to legal cannabis for this group would incent them to obtain cannabis from the illicit market, in which products are untested for potency or contaminants and carry the potential risk of criminalization
  • The Chair of the Task Force on Cannabis has noted that 18 or 19 year olds are considered responsible enough to enlist to fight in foreign wars, marry, and buy and consume (more dangerous and addictive) alcohol and tobacco. (By the way, 18 year-olds can legally buy and possess powerful firearms too, and grow up to 15 kilograms of tobacco annually).
  • Nevertheless, some observers would still challenge the ability of a 19 or 20 year-old to make decisions about using cannabis.

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