As an 18 year old in Quebec you can buy and consume alcohol and tobacco, you can vote, you can be tried as an adult in criminal court, but, according to Quebec premier-designate François Legault, you should not be able to buy or consume cannabis once it is legalized on October 17.
Like it’s neighbour to the west, Quebec is seeing a major shift in its government from a Liberal stronghold to a conservative majority. For the first time, the centre-right Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) will form the majority government in Quebec and its leader, François Legault, is wasting no time making headlines for his controversial views, none as timely as those regarding the impending legalization of cannabis.
Early in the election campaign Legault pledged to raise the legal age of cannabis use from 18 to 21 in the province, citing the “terrible” effects of cannabis on young consumers. “It’s dangerous, this product, for young people under 25 years old, so we have to make sure that we send the right message,” Legault told the Montreal Gazette, lamenting the dangers of normalizing the consumption of cannabis in Quebec. “We shouldn’t be trivializing youth cannabis use,” he said at a campaign stop, reaching for the familiar heartstring Health Minister Lucie Charlebois pulled when expressing personal concern over the dangers that domestic cannabis cultivation might pose to her grandchildren.
No other province in Canada has set the legal age for cannabis as high as 21. Health sociologist and professor at the University of Calgary Dr. Rebecca J. Haines-Saah says that setting the legal age of access to cannabis at 21 will not protect youth, the demographic with the highest rate of cannabis use, from harm. “People who argue for this age restriction typically do so because 21 is what has been done in the US where states have legalized without realizing this is not based on evidence of harms, merely harmonizing with the legal age for alcohol,” Dr. Haines-Saah told VICE.
The age of majority for booze in Quebec is 18, and young adults deserve to be treated as adults, and not have their rights legislated away to send a political message.
The federal framework for cannabis legalization, Bill C-45, recommends that legal age of cannabis use be 18 in order to minimize negative public health and safety outcomes. At this time, all provinces and territories except for Quebec and Alberta have strayed from the recommendation, instead opting to raise the legal age to 19 in their respective jurisdictions.
Ontario is among the provincial bodies setting the legal age at 19, and although this decision aligns with the province’s legal age restrictions on alcohol and tobacco sales, it contradicts the recommended best practices laid out by the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services (MCSCS).
In a document obtained by VICE, the ministry highlights key considerations for law enforcement regarding minimum legal age; “If the minimum ages differ from province to province there could be a rise in “border shopping” for youth similar to what happens with alcohol.” Just ask first year university students in Ontario that are close to their 19th birthdays, but even closer to the Quebec border. Rules and regulations that lack consistency create openings for deviance at the seams.
Perhaps the most important observation made in the report, and most easily dismissed by Legault’s standards, is that “raising the minimum age much higher than 18 could lead to continued reliance on the illicit market by youth and young adults.”
Quebec, like other provinces opting for a government-monopolized cannabis market, is initially setting out ideal conditions for a black market thrive adjacent to the highly restricted, centralized model of legal production and distribution. Any one aspects of the forecasted cannabis supply shortages, province-wide lack and unequal distribution of retail locations, heavy restrictions on consumption sites, and blanket ban on home-growing cannabis will leave Quebecers opting for the convenience over the legal imperative.
When publicly confronted with dissenting arguments Legault did not express explicit concern that his proposed policy change might contribute to a greater societal harm. Prior to the election he admitted to the Montreal Gazette, “I understand that they (cannabis consumers under 21 years old) may find another place to buy pot, but the government has to make sure that it’s sending the right message.”
A message is certainly being sent to youth and young adults, but it’s the wrong one according to Dr. Haines-Saah. “If we set the (legal) age higher than alcohol, we send the message to youth that alcohol is a 'safer' choice—and unfortunately that is just not what the evidence tells us,” said Dr. Haines-Saah.
Legault’s argument seems to lack evidence entirely. There is no evidence showing death caused by cannabis consumption alone, whereas 5,082 Canadians died from alcohol abuse in 2015, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information. Unsurprisingly, the mortality rates related to tobacco consumption are even higher. Although these are broad scientific observations amongst many variables, it is unclear whether or not Legault has done his homework about the basic risk levels associated with cannabis, alcohol, and tobacco. In the meantime, he is busy stoking and profiting off of the public’s fears.
The decision to set the legal age of cannabis use at 21 stands in direct opposition to the objectives laid out in Quebec’s “public health approach” to legalization. Upping the age limit from 18 to 21 not only suppresses the rights of legal adults, it drives young cannabis consumers further in the direction the flawed provincial framework has set out: away from the legal market and across provincial borders. Legault’s claim to be protecting the youth is a noble disguise for subtly enacting a prohibitionist agenda within a regime of legalization.
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