Legal age for marijuana use should be 21, say top public health officials

Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health made presentation to House of Commons committee on Thursday on behalf of his counterparts from across the country.

Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health made presentation to House of Commons committee on Thursday

Nova Scotia's Chief Medical Officer of Health made a presentation before the House of Commons health committee Thursday on behalf of his counterparts from across the country. (Ron Ward/Canadian Press)

Some of Canada's top health officials are telling Ottawa they believe the legal age for using marijuana should be 21.

Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health made a presentation through video conference to the House of Commons health committee Thursday on behalf of his counterparts from across the country.

Dr. Robert Strang told CBC in an interview that information gleaned from experience regulating tobacco and alcohol, as well as from jurisdictions in the U.S., suggests 21 would be an appropriate age for marijuana use.

"[The] age of 21, over the long term, has a bigger impact on decreasing youth cannabis use rates than having an age of 19," Strang said.

Quandary of edible products

Last week, Ontario unveiled its pot plan, with a proposed minimum age of 19 to use recreational marijuana. The province also announced an online ordering service and about 150 stand-alone stores.

Strang addressed the sale of edible marijuana, saying it needs to be done extremely carefully to "minimize the normalization" of eating cannabis, especially for children and youth.

Police in Quebec seized these THC-laced gummi bears in 2015. (Laval Police)

"Once you allow the legalization of edible products, the range is almost endless and you have all sorts of issues around how do you control consumption of edible products," he said. "I think it needs to be done thoughtfully and carefully and with lots of consultations with provinces and territories and with a range of other stakeholders."

Cost should rise over time

As for the cost, Strang said in the beginning, the price of legal marijuana will have to be competitive with the illegal market.

But over time, he advocates making pot more expensive.

Nova Scotia's Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Robert Strang, said 21 should be the legal age for using marijuana. (CBC)

"Like we've learned with tobacco and alcohol and other things, price is one of the key factors that you can use to decrease use, especially for heavy users and especially for youth," he said.  

Strang said products that are less likely to cause harm, such as non-smokable forms of the drug and those with lower concentrations of THC, cost less. 

'A grey zone'

The Trudeau government introduced legislation in April to legalize and regulate the sale and distribution of marijuana on or before July 1, 2018. Earlier this week, law enforcement officials appeared before the House of Commons health committee, saying they needed more time to get ready.

Strang said the current situation around marijuana is "very much a grey zone."

"Lack of clarity on what's legal and illegal and who is operating and what should be the policing resources brought to bear is not helpful for anybody," he said.

"So my own perspective is that the sooner we actually move to a situation of much greater clarity, even though we may not have all the pieces in place, the better off we'll be."