In every possible way, the Canadian government's legalized marijuana bill made clear it had one top priority—keeping children safe from weed.
Liberal member of parliament Bill Blair, a former Toronto police chief, has been the poster boy for the government's project and the loudest voice in this regard.
"Frankly, in most urban centers across this country, it is far easier for a kid, an underaged youth, to acquire marijuana than it is to acquire alcohol," the MP said last Thursday. According to him, when the children do get weed, it's "often" from "a gangster behind some apartment building" or "a criminal in a stairwell" or even both: "a gangster in a stairwell."
The tone-deaf language he used is laced with racial charge and cringe. To me, an older white man (and a former top cop!), making statements about kids getting drugs from gangsters in stairwells indicates one thing and one thing only: narc alert! But I wondered whether real children thought differently. With concern for their stairwell-based safety, I asked some pot-smoking teens in Toronto where they get their weed and if it truly is easier for them to do so than it is to "acquire alcohol."
Some teens, despite smoking weed themselves, said that alcohol is much easier to get. Seventeen-year-old James said he only smokes weed once a month because of this. To him, "[alcohol] is not viewed as serious," so he can get it from his parents or older friends. If he smokes weed instead he must wait until he is with his friends who smoke more regularly. Newly 18-year-old high school students Brandon* and Arianna agreed. Brandon said alcohol is "definitely" easier since he is only occasionally carded while buying alcohol and Arianna explained that she simply uses an ID she borrowed from an older student who has graduated. According to Brandon, he smokes marijuana twice a week, but he says it's harder now that he buys from dispensaries, which "can be uptight and much more expensive [than buying from dealers as he used to]" often charging "more than 50 percent above street value." Arianna said she smokes four to five times a week, buying only from "friends that keep it on them."
But other stoner teens said they find weed-buying a simple task.
Max, 17, says he would never go buy alcohol by himself, but he frequents three different dispensaries, which "don't care whether you're underaged or not."
Niki, 17, has never had trouble getting weed, but if she does not have her fake ID and no one can "pick up" alcohol for her, she is out of luck. Apart from being difficult to acquire, she also thinks alcohol is a much worse substance of choice. "I feel like [alcohol] messes with your inhibitions more than weed does. You are more likely to make bad decisions when you're drinking," Niki said. This seems to be the consensus among most of the teens I interviewed, who told me they smoke weed the same or more than they drink. "You feel [weed] a lot less the next morning," Brandon said.
Minister of National Revenue Diane Lebouthillier also claimed it's much easier to get weed than cigarettes. James rarely smokes weed, but he said he goes through "half a pack [of cigarettes] a week." When asked whether it is easier to acquire cigarettes or weed, he initially said "definitely cigarettes" but changed his answer to weed "if you have your card." In the latter case, he is referring to membership cards for which one can sign up in order to buy weed from specific dispensaries. Arianna has never bought weed from a dealer or a dispensary, and she does not smoke cigarettes often "unless [she's] on vacation," but if she ever wanted one, she says she would just go to a convenience store and use her fake ID.
Acquiring weed and alcohol has also changed rapidly even in the past two years, according to 17-year-old Beatrice and her 18-year-old weed supplier, Ryan. Ryan said that weed is much easier than alcohol to get now that he goes to the dispensary, but at their high school in North York Toronto, that was not always the norm. If they wanted alcohol, they could either steal it from parents or order it like pizza from an "old Russian lady and her step-son in a small little red car."
According to Beatrice, "You just, like, know [illegal alcohol suppliers aka bootleggers'] numbers, text them, and tell them what you want, and they drop it off at your house for a fee. It was really sketchy." Ryan said their "entire grade used it, like, two years ago," but now they have friends who are old enough to buy it themselves.
Despite a few manageable obstacles, weed and alcohol both seem very accessible for young people, at least in a major urban center like Toronto. I made sure to specifically ask the children I talked to whether or not they have acquired weed from gangsters behind apartment buildings, criminals in stairwells, or any intersection of the two, and almost across the board the answer was: no. (Niki vaguely said, "It's happened before.") Toronto teens might not be targeted by the "gangsters" Bill Blair imagines, but maybe he should be warning parents about grandmas with cell phones who drive small red cars.
*Some names have been changed to protect privacy.
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