Amid growing calls on Canada to limit recreational pot to people over 25 years once it's legalized, a new study is underscoring just how strong of an appetite Canadian teens have for weed.
Although the rates seem to have dropped over the years, a World Health Organization survey released Tuesday shows Canada had among the highest use of cannabis among "schoolchildren," at 27 percent over a 12-month period.
The survey questions youth who are 11, 13, and 15 years of age in North America, Europe, and Israel on a range of "risky" behaviors" including cannabis use and sexual activity.
When it came to cannabis use among teens in the last 30 days, France had the highest, with 15 percent of 15-year-olds reporting that to be the case, while Canada trailed just behind with 13 percent of 15-year-old boys and girls saying they had used cannabis in that time.
Canada had the highest number of 15-year-olds — 15 percent of boys and girls — who said they had tried pot when they were 13 or younger.
For years, Canada has garnered a reputation for having the highest rates of cannabis use among teens and young adults worldwide. Anti-drug crusaders have used this fact to introduce harsher drug crime laws, while pro-pot advocates have argued this is precisely why the drug must be controlled and regulated. Now, questions abound about what the age limit on recreational weed should be.
While the government still remains tight-lipped about what its recreational marijuana regime will look like, let alone what the age restriction will be, there's been a strong push by health experts and advocacy groups for it to restrict access to people over the age of 25 — much to the chagrin of members of the cannabis community who had hoped any age limit would be similar to that on alcohol, 18 or 19 years old.
Research has shown that people under 25 years old have the highest rate of cannabis use in Canada. But this is precisely when cannabis use can have the worst effects on brain and cognitive development, according to the Canadian Center on Substance Abuse (CCSA).
"Cannabis is not a harmless drug," a 2015 report by the group said. "It can be addictive and the risk increases the earlier it is used ... evidence is mounting that cannabis affects the young brain in a harmful way that cannot be ignored.
The federally funded group just concluded a five-city tour alongside other health advocacy groups warning Canadians about the harmful impacts of cannabis on people under 25 who use it. Dr. Phillip Tibbo, director of the Nova Scotia Early Psychosis program, told an audience in Calgary last week that discussions about an age limit under legalization should consider impacts of cannabis on adolescent development.
"With a drinking age at, say, 18, does that mean we have to have the same age for cannabis as well?" he asked the crowd.
'That sort of age limit is just patronizing.'
And it seems like the government is paying attention. According to a ministerial presentation prepared by Health Canada last November, the department highlights that while there is "some evidence of limited therapeutic benefit to marijuana use," consensus among the health community remains that regular recreational use carries risks "including long-term cognitive ones for those under 25."
If 25 becomes the age limit in Canada, it would be among the highest of any jurisdiction that has legalized the substance. In the Netherlands, recreational cannabis can be sold to anyone over 18, and in the state of Colorado, it's 21.
Currently, marijuana is only legal in Canada for people with prescriptions who buy it through a company that holds a license from the federal government.
Ronan Levy, director of Canadian Cannabis Clinics, a clinic that helps patients with prescriptions access medical marijuana, said he agrees that the age limit on recreational cannabis should be 25, even though evidence on its harms is inconclusive. He added that it's very rare that doctors will prescribe to someone who is younger than 25 for this reason.
"Given that the consequences impact developing brains, it makes sense that regulation contemplate restricting it to people at the age of 25. It has to be weighed against the other interest of making recreational cannabis accessible, and if you make it too restrictive, then you risk creating more of a black market," he said in an interview.
Canada has consistently had high teenage cannabis use rates, in spite of it being a crime, Levy noted. "It's more reflective of the attitudes here, and the need to properly educate people about its harms."
But for Adam Greenblatt, executive director of Santé Cannabis, a marijuana clinic and resource center in Montreal, such a high age restriction would never work and will perpetuate the black market that already exists.
A number of unregulated marijuana dispensaries across the country cater to people over 18, and it's easy for teens to purchase marijuana through dealers and other illegal means.
"It's just not sensible. It's not realistic. Age limits are not recommended starting ages. Age limits are supposed to reflect a point at which an individual can make their own decisions as an adult regarding their health," he said. "It will only encourage people to access cannabis under suspect circumstances and it won't actually deter anyone from using it."
"It's all well and good in public health promotion to say wait until your late 20s to try marijuana, that makes very good sense, and I'm not suggesting that people should start using marijuana at a young age, but that sort of age limit is just patronizing."
The Liberals have tapped former Toronto Police chief Bill Blair, now a member of parliament, to head up the legalization efforts. And over the last few months, several dispensaries and grow-ops have been raided.
"The buzz has largely been killed around legalization," added Greenblatt. "There's a lot of concern about what Trudeau's legalization will look like, and if we've sold ourselves out to this guy. If he implements a super restrictive legal regime that makes it harder to get than cigarettes and alcohol, it means we haven't won."
Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne