Pubdate: Thu, 14 Sep 2017
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2017 The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Denise Balkissoon
Page: A13


As marijuana legalization looms, let's remind lawmakers that the focus
must be on public health, not criminal justice

Twenty-year-old me can't believe 40-year-old me has come to this,
sending out a warning call about the dangers of marijuana. There is
more than a fragrant whiff of do as I say, not as I did about this

But 40-year-old me has seen things 20-year-old me hadn't, such as
people around me coping with addiction and mental illness. So I'm here
to be a wet blanket: As legalization approaches, let's focus on
(spoiler alert, old-lady phrase) our young people.

This week, the house health committee in Ottawa is listening to dozens
of witnesses who have thoughts on pot policy. All involved should stay
focused on why exactly legalization is happening, which isn't about
giggly parties, or even raking in billions in taxes and profits.

The point of all this is public health - which includes recognizing
that the criminal-justice system isn't the place to reckon with the
vast majority of users, even abusers, of the drug. That goes for
everyone in Canada, but teenagers and young adults

While marijuana poses fewer known health risks than tobacco and
alcohol, its downsides are generally worse for those under 25. Chronic
users risk cognitive difficulties, such as memory loss and trouble
paying attention, and that's particularly true for those whose brains
are still developing.

The exact cause-and-effect relationship between marijuana use and
mental illness is yet to be untangled, but psychosis and schizophrenia
are both more common among those who used the drug as youth. It's well
documented that this is the life stage when many mood disorders
appear, making it important that young users know the risks and
warning signs. It's especially important given that Canadians under 18
are big fans of the drug, with about 26,000 Ontario teenagers using it
daily. That number is from the October, 2014, cannabis-policy
framework put out by the Canadian Association of Mental Health, which
also included a 2013 Unicef finding that Canadian youth are the
biggest pot smokers among the world's 29 richest countries.

They're more likely to use marijuana than tobacco, even though one is
illegal and the other isn't. That's exactly the point of legalization:
regulation, oversight and education to convince those who really
shouldn't use drugs of why they might reconsider.

Instead of useless "just say no" admonitions - "Why? Because it's
against the law" - we're now on the hook to have complicated
conversations with children about the pros and cons of getting high.
Note to the federal government: It's well past time that parents and
educators had a little official guidance on how those lessons could
go. Another one of the first principles of legalization particularly
relevant to youth is about eliminating useless criminalization. It's
distressing that the proposed legislation recommends those under 18
found with five grams or more of marijuana still be charged criminally.

On Wednesday, the committee spent hours discussing the lifelong risks
posed to youth by early marijuana use, but largely ignored that
criminal records have long shadows, too.

The only person who seems to have brought up the issue is Ottawa
lawyer Michael Spratt, who told the committee on Monday how silly the
clause is, as "if full criminalization of marijuana doesn't deter a
youth from possessing marijuana [now], a half-measure such as that
won't do that, either."

More importantly, marking teenagers caught with pot as bad kids that
only the police can deal with is fully counter to the point of
legalization. Not least because, as with so many aspects of the
criminal-justice system, the baggage of marijuana criminalization is
carried most often by the same groups of people.

MP and former Toronto police chief Bill Blair has said himself that
"the current enforcement disproportionately impacts poor
neighbourhoods and racialized communities," and experts have spoken to
the unfair targeting of Indigenous, black and brown

The threat of arrest tells the most vulnerable young people that
instead of helping them deal with their problems, Canada is going to
punish them - maybe forever. Youth criminal records are generally
sealed, but Mr. Spratt says this isn't always true in practice,
meaning a 14-year-old caught with six grams of pot could have trouble
travelling for the rest of their life.

The countdown is on to come up with a legalization plan that is fair
and keeps public health front of mind. In honour of 20-year-old me, I
hope that comes true for the children out there, especially.
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MAP posted-by: Matt