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Wednesday, June 6th 2018 - Bill C-45 The Cannabis Act - Motion to Amend - Legal Age Limit Increase to 21


Hon. Rose-May Poirier: Honourable senators, I rise here today to talk about the important issue of what the age should be for access to legalized cannabis. The current provision in Bill C-45 proposes to have 18 years of age be the set age for legalized cannabis, and it gives the provinces the latitude to move that age. Unfortunately, I’m worried that the age of legalization as it is right now will do more harm than good, especially if it remains asymmetric.

At the Social Affairs Committee, we heard a wide spread of expert opinions on what the age limit should be. We heard 25, 21, 19 and 18. The age of 25 was proposed especially due to health concerns for the development of the brain. According to Dr. Sharon Levy, Medical Director of the Adolescent Substance Abuse Program at Boston Children’s Hospital and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the Harvard Medical School, who appeared on April 16 at the Social Affairs Committee:

The suggestion to push the age limit higher is really one to protect the public health because the scientific data is so clear that the developing brain is really at risk from marijuana use. This age range from adolescence into early adulthood is when people become addicted to substances, particularly marijuana. The people who experience the greatest harms are those who are using in this age range. So anything that you can do to delay that age of initiation is protective of the public health.

She’s not the only one to have expressed her concerns on how the use of cannabis can have serious effects on a young person’s brain. We also heard from Dr. Meldon Kahan, who believed the age should be increased to 25:

I really believe, as do many of my peers, that the legal limit should be increased from 18 to 25 years. Twenty-five is an age which is shown to be where the brain is fully matured and there seems to be somewhat fewer harms from cannabis after that age. That increase in age will make it more difficult for youth to use cannabis.

Honourable senators, there is a concern in having the age so low. At 18, the brain is still developing. Legalizing it at 18 sends a different message our youth. It tells them that cannabis is no longer a drug and is not as harmful as it was perceived to be.

According to Dr. Harold Kalant, Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto, who appeared on April 16:

The medical evidence is that the susceptibility of maturation of important parts of the brain to detrimental effects from cannabis continues to an age of about 24 or 25. I think there is very little possibility of expecting that Parliament will accept an age limit of 25. All I can say is that the later it is, the better. I think 21 is definitely better than 18 or 19.

Dr. Kalant’s approach, in my opinion, is the right compromise, honourable senators. We have heard that the younger the user begins consuming cannabis, the higher the risk of having negative consequences to the development of the brain. The safest age to consume cannabis with minimum effect on the brain is at 25. On that data, the majority of the medical experts agree. The disagreement is on how to balance the health risks of exposing our youth to cannabis and the social norms of today.

Honourable senators, I do believe having the age set at 21 is a cautious compromise. It is not to be restrictive or out of mistrust when an individual of 18 cannot make the decisions to consume cannabis or not. It is out of cautiousness to have flexibility or, as we say in French, une marge de manoeuvre.

If Bill C-45 is adopted as it is right now with the age set at 18, we are stuck with that age; our hands will be tied. There’s no way we can adapt, for example. If 3, 5 or 10 years into legalization we come to the conclusion that cannabis is more harmful to the developing brain than anticipated, we have no way to bring it up to 21. Once it is set at 18, we are stuck with the age limit. It will be nearly impossible to bring it up to 21 and change the course of normalization that would have occurred.

However, if in 3, 5 or 10 years from now we come to the conclusion that cannabis is not as harmful to the developing brain and our data shows that public education has worked well and that the risk to slide it down to 18 is minimum, we have that flexibility.

One of the arguments made for 18 is to align it with alcohol. How has that worked? According to Statistics Canada, despite the fact that it is illegal to sell alcohol to anyone under 18, 27.9 per cent of Canadian youth ages 12 to 17 reported consuming an alcoholic beverage in the previous 12 months. Among those who did drink, 41.8 per cent of them did so at least once a month.

So there is still usage under 18, and there will continue to be for cannabis as well.

The argument has been made that if the age of access is set to 21, individuals between the ages of 18 and 20 will be pushed to the illicit market, but I can make the same argument of having it at age 18: It will also push all the kids under 18 to the illicit market.

We obviously do not want any individual going to the illicit market, and we can drive that message with public education. We have also heard how the government has begun their public education campaign well in advance. They have put some funds in this budget. Provinces have also put money in their own campaigns that include having producers inject money for public awareness. If that argument was good for that it would educate those under 18 on cannabis and its harms, it will be just as beneficial for those between 18 and 20 who risk going into the illicit market.

Honourable senators, please let me assure you this is not a case of “reefer madness.” I am not predicting a doomsday scenario. I want our society to treat the age of access with caution, based on the medical and health data. The evidence might not be conclusive, but we do know there is a risk, and the potential is always there for the risk to be worse.

We need to be careful on this and give ourselves the flexibility and wiggle room to adjust it if we have it wrong. It is much more doable and realistic to soften regulations instead of tightening them down the line. If we have it wrong at 21, we can slide down. If we have it wrong at 18, we are stuck. At the end of the day, it will be our youth who will suffer the consequences.

Motion in Amendment Negatived

Hon. Rose-May Poirier: Therefore, honourable senators, in amendment, I move:

That Bill C-45, as amended, be not now read a third time, but that it be further amended

(a)by replacing “18” with “21”

(i)in clause 8, on page 7, in line 2,

(ii)in clause 9,

(A)on page 9, in line 16, and

(B)on page 10, in lines 7 and 13,

(iii)in clause 10, on page 11, in lines 10, 11, 18 and 25,

(iv)in clause 12, on page 13, in lines 13, 21 and 28,

(v)in clause 17, on page 18, in lines 18 and 33, and

(vi)in clause 32, on page 24, in line 15;

(b)by replacing “a young person” with “an individual who is 12 years of age or older but under 21 years of age”

(i)in clause 8, on page 7, in line 9, and

(ii)in clause 12, on page 14, in line 2;

(c)in clause 9, on page 9, by replacing line 14 with the following:

“than 30 g of dried cannabis if the individual is 21 years of age or older or to more than 5 g of dried cannabis if the individual is 18 years of age or older but under 21 years of age,”;

(d)in clause 12, on page 14, by replacing line 16 with the following:

“(4), (5), (6) and (7) or any organization that contravenes sub-”;

(e)in clause 32, on page 24,

(i)by replacing line 12 with the following:

“to sell a cannabis accessory to an individual who is under 21 years of age.”, and

(ii)by replacing line 14 with the following:

“that the accused believed that the individual referred”;

(f)in clause 51, on page 29, by replacing line 15 with the following:

“the contravention of any of paragraphs 8(1)(a), (b) and (c) or any of”;

(g)in clause 62, on page 37, by replacing line 11 with the following:

“(i) an individual who is under 21 years of age,”; and

(h)in clause 69, on page 40, by replacing line 26 with the following:

“(b) they may not sell cannabis to individuals who are under 21 years of age;”.

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