Age matters

While marijuana is still illegal in Canada and most of the world, 21-year-olds can buy it in stores in Colombia and four American states. Those 18 or older can buy marijuana in Uruguay and at the infamous “coffee shops” in the Netherlands. So what should Canada’s age of consumption be if Justin Trudeau follows through on his campaign promise to legalize marijuana?

Doctors and medical researchers say Canadians under 21 shouldn’t expect to take advantage of the Liberal governments’ proposed legalization – at least not if they want to protect their growing brains.

The still-developing teenage brain is the point of focus for some researchers when it comes to marijuana. Dr. Peter Fried, a research professor in psychology at Carleton University, has conducted extensive studies on marijuana use among adolescents. He has concerns with legalization because the human brain is still developing until around age 20 and using marijuana could hurt that process.

“Taking a drug that impacts any part of the brain that is developing is not a good thing,” says Dr. Fried. Marijuana, if legalized, should be illegal for Canadians under 21 in order to shield their developing brains, he says.

Scientific evidence suggests using marijuana under age 21 can impact the still-developing brain.

Scientific evidence suggests using marijuana under age 21 can impact the still-developing brain. Infographic © Kirk Kitzul

The Medicine Line: Recreational vs. Medicinal Marijuana

One doctor says election promises and the potential for marijuana legalization have blurred the boundary between medical and recreational use.

“Before we really discuss the recreational use, I think we need to figure out the medical use,” says Dr. Andrea Burry, medical director of the Trauma Healing Center. These medical centers focus on the treatment of PTSD, chronic pain and other disabling illnesses with locations in Halifax, Moncton, Ottawa, Hamilton and Fredericton.

“If it’s just legalized across the board then I fear that we might lose that potential to actually study its benefits and its potential risks,” says Dr. Burry. There’s a therapeutic potential to cannabis that can’t be ignored and deserves more research, she says.

Medicinal marijuana is markedly different than the regular drug people smoke just for fun. Dr. Burry says that difference means people who use marijuana as a medicine need to be protected and not lumped in with all users. Someone smoking for medical reasons is looking for something different than the average person looking to get high on a Friday night.

Medical marijuana and recreational marijuana contains different active agents and produce different results.

Medical marijuana and recreational marijuana contains different active agents and produce different results. Infographic © Kirk Kitzul

Dr. Fried says he thinks young people who smoke up are more likely to unconsciously abuse marijuana or take greater risks while high. He says objective education can help alleviate those concerns.

Objective marijuana education for Canadians could explain both the risks and benefits of the drug instead of strictly reflecting its current legal status, says Dr. Fried. Driving while high is one major concern flagged by both Dr. Fried and Dr. Burry. Breathalyzer-style tests for marijuana don’t currently exist, making it difficult to apply restrictions to consumption.

Knowing the difference between medicinal strands full of CBD and recreational strands heavy in THC could aid users in instances of self-medication. Dr. Burry says she often sees people who have experimented with self-medication and experienced positive results but legalization threatens those types of interactions.

“I’ve actually seen a lot of people who are now coming to me or to their physicians looking for a legal prescription for [marijuana] because they’ve been using it and found it worked.”

Figuring out whether marijuana is making someone feel better or making them more functional is important, says Dr. Burry. Conducting a clinical trial can offer more conclusive results on the impact of marijuana on each individual. She says fully legalized marijuana, without clear distinctions between medical and recreational, means that without needing a prescription to gain access to marijuana people might skip the doctor all together.

“We lose that aspect of caring for them from a medical perspective. If they’re doing it anyways because they can buy it then we’ve lost that element of control in actually helping them.”

<h3>Alcohol Ages</h3>

Vendors have already begun the push to put permitted marijuana on their shelves. Shoppers Drug Mart said its stores would be the safest option for dispensing medical grade pot. The head of the union representing Liquor Control Board of Ontario workers, Warren (Smokey) Thomas, told the CBC that its stores would be able to properly handle the sale of marijuana. But with two different drinking ages, 18 in Manitoba, Alberta and Quebec, and 19 everywhere else, cannabis sales at liquor stores seems problematic, particularly in border communities.

Roderick Phillips, an alcohol historian, says the age of consumption for alcohol is rather arbitrary. Without cars, elections or bottled booze there had been little reason to put age into legislation, he says. It wasn’t until the 1920s and 30s that minimum drinking ages came to North America. Twenty-one became the age. Old enough to vote, old enough to drink. The drinking age was lowered to 18 and 19 throughout Canada during the 70s and 80s.

With liquor sales already sanctioned for 18 and 19-year-olds, the Liberal government has societal standards to compete with when setting the age for marijuana consumption. Medical experts say the minimum age for alcohol is too young to be applied to marijuana and legalization needs special consideration.

[Header Photo © Kirk Kitzul]
[Frontpage Photo © Tanjila Ahmed via Creative Commons]

Kirk Kitzul is a fourth-year Journalism student at Carleton University with minors in Law and Indigenous Studies. Born in Saskatoon, Kitzul co-founded the alternative news outlet, The New Laurentian, in 2014. He is also the drummer of Ottawa rock band Maritime Bleach.

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