For the past four decades, politicians have argued that prohibitionist policies will keep drugs out of the hands of youth. As we’ve seen, the opposite has occurred and rates of drug use are higher than they used to be. Canadian youth lead the developed world in rates of cannabis consumption. It is exciting that Canada will also be leading the world in introducing legislation legalizing the recreational use of cannabis in the spring of 2017. The key question now is how this will be done. Input from youth will be valuable to help shape this legislation and we believe our voice should be considered at the policy level.

In Canada, prohibition has led to creating a much more injurious situation for youth than before any kind of regulation. It needs to be approached comprehensively since related harms are extensive. Such harsh zero tolerance policies, trying to reduce offering and demand of substances didn’t reduce access to the substance nor its usage. And the linked consequences vary depending on one’s individual characteristics such as age, sex, socio-economic status, and geographical position. Prohibition has destroyed families by criminalizing cannabis users and subsequently limiting youth employment and travel opportunities. Youth have also faced barriers to access for medical cannabis, often being accused of trying to beat the system. Prohibition has generated inaccurate drug information, that has itself lead to riskier use, and hampered access to social services. In addition, prohibition has forced users to pursue black market cannabis and switch to new, unknown and hazardous psychotropic substances, such as the synthetic cannabinoid Spice.

Drug information does not encourage consumption but rather it reduces the harm associated with use. The jury is in on drug education programs such as the “Just Say No” campaign of the 80s and the D.A.R.E program of the 90s both of which were at best ineffective. Therefore, CSSDP is asking for a new approach that emphasizes public health. Coordinated and multisectoral strategies are needed (CAMH, 2014). We do not deny that the only way to avoid all harm is to not use cannabis, but we have to respect one’s choices, and face the fact that there will always be substance use. We would therefore like to see a commitment to realistic drug education around cannabis to replace the “abstinence only”, fear based education many of us received in school. British Columbia is the first province to introduce curriculum that emphasizes harm reduction; rather than teaching youth to fear drugs, the program aims at teaching youth how to function in a society where drugs are being used. We are advocating for a National program, similar to the iMinds curriculum in B.C., that is based in evidence not ideology. The years following legalization will be very important in educating the public about ways to decrease the harms associated with cannabis and as youth who have grown up during prohibition we believe we can offer valuable insight.

We need to create new social norms around legal and responsible cannabis usage. It will be important to focus on not having the same “culture of use” that we are currently having with alcohol and that is more and more getting out of control (Jean-Sébastien Fallu 2016). For a productive and meaningful conversation, acknowledging experimentation and providing information and tools to help them manage any substance encounters is what works.

It is also important that the upcoming regulations acknowledge groups that are more at risk. For example, there is some evidence that suggests cannabis may contribute to an earlier onset of psychosis and schizophrenia in individuals predisposed to such illnesses. Research needs to be pursued, framed, and taken into consideration. The question of medical prescription also needs to be brought up. Regardless of legal age, parents should be able to make decisions regarding the use of medical cannabis for their children if they consider the substance to be helpful for them. Therefore, aspects like production, sale and advertisement, of the substance will have to be strictly regulated.

Despite knowing that some studies have shown cannabis to be harmful to the brains of youth under the age of 25, we feel that is too late. If you take into consideration that a majority of cannabis users begin use between the ages of 15 and 25 it will be important to capture that demographic in legalization. The legal age should reflect the ability of an individual to make an informed decision rather than evaluating the relative safety of use. The Le Dain Commission recommended the legal age for cannabis consumption be 16. Setting a lower age limit may help prevent the continuation of an underground cannabis market and reduce the associated harms on youth.

We stand with a number of organizations and individuals in calling for an immediate end to arrests for cannabis possession. How can the government watch as the draconian laws continue to ruin young people’s chances and limit their opportunities all while the Prime Minister himself states that the laws are more harmful than the substance itself, not to mention his own use of cannabis in recent years. In Canada, over 22,000 cannabis possession charges were laid in 2014, a statistic the Parliamentary Secretary Bill Blair referred to as ‘shocking’. Furthermore, the current laws disproportionately affect minority groups and it is likely that in the next year, before the new legislation is introduced, a number of youth will receive criminal records for cannabis possession. According to Statistics Canada, 24% of those accused of cannabis crimes are youth. We can not leave it up to the discretion of the courts to decide whether or not another youth will live with the barriers a criminal record brings. We understand the government has a difficult road ahead in terms of legalization but we urge them to place a moratorium on arrests while they navigate legalization. If changing the criminal code can not be done in a timely manner, we urge the government to tell the RCMP to deprioritize the section of Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that deals with the personal possession of cannabis.

We are not naive to the difficulties that arise from being one of the first countries to legalize cannabis. This move is going to generate both international praise and condemnation. However legalization is an issue of human rights and well-being. We are aware that the right solution in terms of policy will not be up for spring 2017. It will need a close follow-up, and take readjustments over the time. We can already take examples on what we have learned from tobacco and alcohol. But we must not limit our réflexive process to these two substances since cannabis is a different substance and already has it’s own culture.

We have heard a lot about “protecting youth” in drug policy discourse over the past few decades. Yet we are less convinced that governments actually want to listen to what young people have to say. For example, at UNGASS this year in New York City, our delegates experienced this disconnect. A number of CSSDP representatives were denied access to a panel even though they had the appropriate grounds passes and the room where the panel was occurring was relatively empty. Ironically this panel was titled “Listening to the needs of children and youth is the first step to help them grow healthy and safe” and regardless of doing all that was necessary to attend the session, we were instead blocked from it. Furthermore, our high school representative reported that security scrutinized his UN grounds pass, while he felt the adults around him were not subjected to the same treatment. We need to ensure that we include youth input in a meaningful way as legalization unfolds. We would like to see a youth voice be represented and are looking to submit recommendations accordingly. We are inheriting the world of tomorrow,  let us help shape it.

Michelle Theissen

Michelle Theissen

Treasurer

An Honours graduate with a Psychology B.A. from the University of British Columbia, Michelle will begin her Masters in Clinical Psychology in fall 2016, continuing her research examining the motivations and outcomes of recreational and therapeutic use of cannabis and psychedelics. Find out more.

Amelie Roulet

Amelie Roulet

Co-Chair

A soon-to-be social worker finishing her degree at Université de Montréal, Amelie volunteers with GRIP Montréal on their drug checking project, and is founding member and chapter leader at ECPESP Université de Montréal, CSSDP’s first francophone chapter. Find out more.

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