Ontario's sales plan won't keep kids away from pot, says UW researcher

A University of Waterloo researcher thinks the province's proposed pot distribution plan won't do much to decrease criminal activity, especially for youth who are under the legal age limit to purchase weed at soon-to-be legal venues.

Researcher says more youth use marijuana than you'd think, and the pot plan doesn't cover them

According to Scott Leatherdale, by Grade 12 just over a quarter of students are marijuana users, most under the proposed legal age of 19. (Ben Nelms/Reuters)

The province's proposed pot distribution plan won't do much to decrease criminal activity, especially for youth who are under the legal age limit, according to a public health researcher from University of Waterloo.

Scott Leatherdale is the principal investigator of the COMPASS study, a longitudinal research project on youth health behaviours. He and his team have been following a group of students between Grades 9 and 12 across Canada for the last five years. The project also looks at whether changes to health policies in schools are effective.

Leatherdale said that by Grade 12, just over a quarter of students are marijuana users; most of them under the proposed legal age of 19.

"It's substantially more common than you'd see with a tobacco use or something like that," he told CBC News.

Leatherdale said while it's good the province is aligning legal pot access with the minimum age to purchase alcohol, it does little to decriminalize recreational use of pot. 

"You don't want a quarter of the Grade 12 population across the country participating in a behaviour that's basically criminalized," he said.
Scott Leatherdale said his research project will be able to watch the effect of the province's pot distribution plan over time, through annual surveys with Canadian youth. (Courtesy of Scott Leatherdale)

Leatherdale also takes issue with the planned 150 standalone cannabis stores. He thinks the province should utilize the well-established LCBO network to distribute pot.

"You'll have some jurisdictions that have substantially more access than others," he said. "In order to reduce the crime element associated with it you're going to need similar distribution networks I would think."

Holding the province accountable

While sees problems with how the province plans on distributing pot, Leatherdale won't be taking his concerns to the province until he has data to back it up.

The COMPASS study surveys the same students once a year to track health-related behaviours, from diet to physical activity to drug and alcohol use.

He said that means he'll be able to see changes in behaviour patterns among youth will, which will prove if the province's distribution plan works.

"This is one of the few times where an external research group that's completely arm's length will have data to be able to say whether it's working or not working and hold government to account," Leatherdale said.

He said legalizing marijuana introduces a change in social norms, which will not only have an effect on pot use among youth, but also on behaviours associated with marijuana use, such as drinking, smoking and physical activity.

"We can also say, does it have any positive or negative impact on all these other risk behaviours we're worried about from a chronic disease prevention standpoint," Leatherdale said.

"We have every intention to share the immediate results as soon as we have them with our provincial and federal stakeholders."