Sask. doctors group wants legal age of 21 for purchasing pot

A Saskatchewan doctors group wants the province to make 21 the legal age for buying recreational marijuana, saying it is concerned the impact to public health could be as extreme as that of cigarettes.

Saskatchewan Medical Association says 21 is a compromise, 25 would be better

The Saskatchewan Medical Association says 21 is the right minimum age for people to purchase marijuana, because using it at a younger age can affect brain development. (Joe Mahoney/Canadian Press)

A Saskatchewan doctors group wants the province to make 21 the legal age for buying recreational marijuana, saying it is concerned the impact to public health of legal pot could be as extreme as that of cigarettes.

The Saskatchewan Medical Association, whose members are Saskatchewan physicians and medical students, announced its recommendation Tuesday morning.

"The effects that we saw when cigarette smoking first came — in the long-term detrimental health effects from cigarettes — was devastating to many people," said SMA president Joanne Sivertson.

"We worry that marijuana will have similar impacts if it gets adopted to the rate that cigarette smoking was."

Last province to set legal age 

The Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Association will issue about 60 retail permits to private stores located in roughly 40 municipalities and First Nations across the province. 

Sivertson said physicians have long been concerned about the harmful effects of marijuana on mental health, particularly for youth.

"Evidence shows that prolonged use of marijuana in young people can have a negative effect on a developing brain, which develops into the mid-20s," said Sivertson.

Saskatchewan will be the last province to set a minimum age for buying pot after legalization. Of the territories, only Nunavut has yet to announce its proposed legal age. 

If the province was to adopt the SMA recommendation, it would have the highest legal age of all the provinces.

The other provinces have all introduced legislation setting the legal age for pot use at either 18 or 19. Federal legislation suggests a legal age of 19.

The Saskatchewan branches of the Canadian Cancer Society and the Lung Association also recommended purchases be limited to people 21 or older.

The Saskatchewan School Boards Association suggested a minimum age of 22.

Sivertson said the SMA would rather see a legal age of at least 25 but 21 is a compromise.

"We recognize that the black market may target our youth and uncontrolled substances carry more risk than controlled substances, so we thought that 21 was a reasonable compromise," she said.

Waiting for new premier

Alberta's provincial government went against the recommendation of its own health provider, Alberta Health Services, which called for a legal age of 21. The medical association for that province had also recommended that age.

The Saskatchewan government said it will not announce the legal age for marijuana use until after a new premier to replace Brad Wall is elected Jan. 27.

"Advice of the SMA and other stakeholders will certainly be considered in recommending and determining the legal age of consumption, but that decision will be made by the new premier and his or her cabinet," said the province in an emailed response.

"The province is working on a number of aspects of the cannabis legalization framework and we anticipate [we will] have the necessary legislation and regulations in place in time for the July legalization date, as set out by the federal government."

Saskatchewan is the only province that hasn't proposed a minimum age for the purchase of recreational marijuana. The federal government has indicated it wants to have recreational pot use legalized by this summer. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC News)

According to Sivertson, the Saskatchewan Medical Association is still in the dark about how the province plans to educate the public about the health risks associated with marijuana use.

She said the association has not been involved in those discussions, and the province has not shared its recommendation for the legal age with her group.

"I'm not sure that there has been much preparation at all from a provincial perspective but I'm not sitting at those tables, so I hesitate to criticize," said Sivertson. 

She said the association has been holding educational sessions for doctors since the arrival of medical marijuana. 

However, the SMA has not lobbied the provincial government directly for more resources.

Instead, the Saskatchewan branch has allowed its umbrella organization — the Canadian Medical Association — to lobby for other changes such as additional research.