Montreal

Plan to raise legal cannabis age panned by group of Quebec doctors

A coalition of doctors, researchers, professors, psychologist and public health experts have teamed up to denounce Quebec's proposal to raise legal age for cannabis to 21 — the highest in the country.

Raising age to 21 is 'completely unrealistic' as youth will just use it illegally, says member of coalition

Members of the Association pour la santé publique du Québec, a non-profit health organization, have come out against the CAQ's plan to raise the legal age limit. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

A coalition of Quebec health professionals have teamed up to denounce the province's plan to raise legal age for smoking cannabis to 21 — the highest in the country.

When the bill was tabled last week in the National Assembly, Premier François Legault said, "I want to send a clear message to all young people. Please, don't use pot. It's not good, it's dangerous."

Jean-Sébastien Fallu, a professor in psycho-education and addiction specialist at the Université de Montréal, is among those questioning the decision.

"What we want to say is it is not true that science is behind this decision," Fallu told CBC Montreal's Daybreak Tuesday morning.

Fallu is among six specialists who signed a statement that, made public Monday, was published by the Association pour la santé publique du Québec (ASPQ) — a non-profit organization that supports social and economic development.

The group cites public consultations done in 2017 that found 60 to 67 per cent of participants — including organizations and citizens —  were in favour of keeping the legal cannabis age on par with tobacco and alcohol.

"Does this mean that public health officials view cannabis as a safe substance? Of course not," says Émilie Dansereau-Trahan, psychoactive substance specialist with the ASPQ, in the statement.

Though some preliminary studies show cannabis may have a negative impact on the developing brains of young people, Fallu says there is still no scientific or logical basis to delay access to cannabis when compared to tobacco or alcohol.

Brain damage in youth who use the drug is rare and the data is still unclear, he said.

"If we are worried about our kids, we should first of all address alcohol," he said. "It's way more dangerous than cannabis."

From a mental health standpoint, alcohol may be similar to cannabis, he said, but data shows alcohol is more dangerous in terms of addiction, accidents, deaths and toxicity on the brain. 

"This is something the population has to understand," he said. "There is no basis for a delayed access to cannabis."

The Coalition Avenir Québec has said it is concerned about the drug's long-term impact on young peoples' mental health, and it has cited findings in the medical community for those concerns.

Groups representing Quebec psychiatrists, medical specialists and emergency physicians have all said they support raising the age.

Opening the door for unregulated, illegal products

Fallu, though, argued prohibition was not successful in preventing young people from using cannabis, and that "there's no way that the prohibition of cannabis before the age of 21" will prevent youth from using the drug.

"That's completely unrealistic," he said. "They're going to continue to use."

Prohibition brings stigmatization, criminalization and penalization without access to quality-controlled products, he said.

When youth buy the drug illegally, he said, they will be accessing uncontrolled product that may contain dangerous pesticides or a high amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — the psychoactive compound in cannabis that can cause negative effects.

It doesn't make sense, he added, to  give 18-year-olds all the responsibilities of adulthood without the right to use cannabis.

Raising the age is a prevention tactic, government says

The government says increasing the age limit is a prevention tactic. 

Junior health minister Lionel Carmant said raising the limit will deter young people from using the drug.

"Actually, what we want in the broader aspect, is to delay the onset of cannabis smoking, not only for 18 year olds, but really for the teenagers," Carmant told Daybreak last week.

"We have to say that one out of three teenagers in Quebec smokes cannabis and this is where we want to change the habits."

Lionel Carmant, Quebec's junior health minister, responds to questions on the plan to raise the legal age to buy cannabis last Thursday in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Carmant has also called the argument they are pushing kids to the black market "fatalistic."

He said studies suggest teens as young as 15 smoke cannabis, but no one would make that the legal age.

"We won't compromise the health of our youth because of the illicit market," he said, adding that increased prevention efforts will help curb the number of young users.

With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak

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