Orders of the Day - Cannabis Bill

Bill to Amend-Second Reading-Debate

February 14, 2018

The Honourable Senator Yuen Pau Woo :

Honourable senators, I would like to join the debate on Bill C-45, An Act respecting cannabis and to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the Criminal Code and other Acts.

I thank colleagues who have spoken before me. Many of the issues on my mind have already been raised. There is no need for repetition. Instead, I want to build on what has already been said and to offer specific suggestions for more detailed investigation at the committee stage of our deliberation.

Let me say, first of all, that I agree with the stated intention of the bill, which is to reduce the harm that is currently being done to consumers of cannabis, especially youth, because of the uncontrolled nature of cannabis production and sales in this country. As an illegal product, cannabis sales operate in the shadows and are run by criminal networks. The shadows are much larger than many of us would like to admit, and much as we like, shadows cannot be wished away. The decades-long “war on drugs” is simply not working.

Colleagues, I also agree with the stated public health approach that we heard ministers talk about when they attended Committee of the Whole in the Senate last week. I have no doubt that they are sincere in taking this approach but I worry that the rhetoric is not consistent with the actual measures in the bill and that, rhetoric notwithstanding, our youth are hearing — or choosing to hear — a different message.

Advocates of legalization argue that the incidence of cannabis use will not increase after the product becomes lawful. They cite the examples of Colorado, Oregon and Washington State, which may or may not be relevant for Canada as a whole.

I am not as confident as they are. The fact is that Canada already has one of the highest rates of cannabis use among youth, so there must be something unique about the social and political context of Canada — or parts of Canada — that has resulted in such high rates. We cannot be sure that legalization will not compound the particularities of the Canadian context, leading to even higher use of marijuana among youth.

For some, higher rates of Cannabis use are not worrying. After all, it has been said often that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol. If one can “drink responsibly,” one should also be able to “toke responsibly,” or so the argument goes. Hence, having more Canadians consume cannabis is not seen to be a problem as long as they consume it responsibly.

Perhaps, but for all the rhetoric of responsible drinking, the reality is that alcohol consumption is responsible for a wide range of health problems and costs. According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, alcohol consumption accounts for $7.1 billion in lost productivity owing to illness and premature death; $3.3 billion in direct health care costs; and $3.1 billion in enforcement costs. In truth, we don’t know what the long-term health effects of cannabis consumption are and what their costs will amount to.

They may be relatively benign, or not. Legalization will allow for proper research to be conducted on this topic. In the meantime, we are operating on a certain amount of faith and, perhaps, even wishful thinking.

What we do know is that cannabis and, in particular the compound tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is harmful to the developing brain at least up to the age of 25. THC is a neurotoxin and it damages neurons needed to develop vital brain circuits. THC affects the body’s endocannabinoid system, which is critically important for organ and brain development. Studies have shown that long-term use of cannabis results in abnormal brain structure and function in areas rich in endocannabinoid receptors. There is even evidence that THC-induced changes in brain structure and function may be inherited by subsequent generations through a process known as epigenetic modification.

Colleagues, given what we know about the serious harm to developing brains up to age 25, why is the age limit for cannabis consumption set at 18 or, in the case of some provinces, at age 19?

The chosen age limit in the bill is based on a belief that it would be counterproductive to set a higher age limit. There are at least two variants to this argument that I am aware of and there may be others. The first is that having an age restriction on cannabis that is different from the age limit for alcohol sends a confusing message to young people. Alcohol, by the way, is more dangerous, more harmful than cannabis. Why is it okay to consume alcohol at age 18 or 19 but not be able to consume cannabis at that same age, cannabis being a less harmful product? Well, to my mind, having a different age limit would, in fact, be an excellent way to underscore the special dangers posed by cannabis to the developing brains of young people. There is nothing magical about the so-called “age of maturity,” especially not if the brain is not mature until age 25. Having a different age limit for alcohol and cannabis is not inconsistent. On the contrary, it is entirely consistent with a science-based approach to regulation and can be used as a valuable teaching moment for parents, educators and peers alike.

The second argument I have heard against a higher age limit is more persuasive. It is that a higher age limit would not prevent youth between the age of 18 and, say, 21, 23 or 25 from consuming cannabis, and that they will be forced to buy their weed from the black market, with all of the risks associated with unregulated products and the involvement of criminal networks. This is, of course, not unlike the problem of underage consumption of alcoholic, albeit at a lower age limit. How do underage youth get access to alcohol? Well, mostly through adults who allow alcohol products to inadvertently fall into the hands of young people or who purchase alcohol on behalf of young people in contravention of the law.

I am not an expert on underage consumption of alcohol, but my impression is that the product they get access to is via legal distribution channels rather than the black market. Can we not expect that a similar practice will take place in the case of underage consumption of cannabis? It will be illegal, of course, for an adult to purchase cannabis for an underage person, as it would be for an adult to purchase alcohol for an underage person. But, if this happens, we can at least have consolation that the product is obtained from a regulated source.

I am not naive, though. Underage consumers will also source product from the black market, and they will face the same risks that are present today, including very high THC content, contaminated products, interaction with criminal actors, and, of course, the stigma of a criminal record if they are caught and convicted.

How much of a role the black market plays in supplying underage consumers will depend partly on how widely available legal marijuana is and the price at which it is sold. This is why we should be paying as much attention to the retail distribution and licensing plans of provinces as we are to the question of age limits. Colleagues, the uncomfortable logic of legalization is that the policy will only succeed in significantly reducing the black market if legal, regulated marijuana is widely available across the country and sold at a competitive price.

The big unknown is what would in fact happen if the age limit for cannabis consumption is raised to 21, 23 or even 25.

Let me paint a scenario. Young people under the age limit would, without doubt, still access cannabis, as they are doing today, but I suspect that many of them would be getting legal, regulated product, albeit illegally. To the extent that this group would otherwise be getting product from illegal, unregulated sources, would this alternative, the scenario I’ve painted, not be considered a form of harm reduction?

Now, there would still be those who buy from the black market and put themselves at higher risk of consuming contaminated product. We cannot be blasé about this group. But the danger in this scenario is, in fact, what we currently experience under the status quo.

There’s an upside, though, to a higher age limit, in my imagination, and the upside is that we will be sending a very clear signal about the special risks of marijuana consumption on the developing brain up to the age of 25. If, by raising the limit, we delay the first use of cannabis to the mid-twenties, and if, in so doing, we end up protecting the brains of thousands of young people, is that not a good policy trade-off?

I may be speaking glibly since I am not an expert on the factors driving youth consumption of marijuana. I’m also aware that my scenario is based on many assumptions around economic incentives, criminal network behaviour, and, most important, youth psychology. It’s been a long time since I was in that age bracket, and I am humble enough to recognize that I may be thinking very differently from the way youth look at cannabis use and cannabis consumption.

Again, these are topics I have limited knowledge of, but I am compelled to ask the question: Should we not consider more of a precautionary approach to this sweeping legislation before us?

Which brings me back to my original point: If marijuana is widely available, and the age limit is set at 18 or 19, the temptation will be high for youth up to age 25 to take up the drug, and they will be doing so at some risk to their developing brains. Hence, I am respectfully requesting that the Social Affairs Committee, which I hope will soon receive this bill for in-depth study, apply an extra dose of unimpaired second thought to the question of the age limit.

I understand the bill’s logic of not setting an age limit that is too high, and I may well be persuaded that this approach is the best one when all factors are considered. But we owe it to our youth and to the generations to follow to revisit this question, especially when we have heard the clear and unequivocal advice of physician groups calling for an age limit between 21 and 25. They have given us an evidence-based approach to policy using their lens of medical science. This is not the only lens with which to formulate policy, but it is a very important one.

I look forward to witness testimony on these questions during the committee hearings.