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Canada: A Westernized Amsterdam? The Potential Failures and Successes of Marijuana Legalization

Surveying my peers on October 18th, the day marijuana was officially legalized in Canada, I noticed that the sample of high school students I inquired with held either positive opinions on the issue or were indifferent, citing marijuana’s potential to boost the economy and destigmatize a substance that is comparatively less harmful than other illegal substances. Adults, on the other hand, demonstrated much more concern, also within reason. My mother, for example, passionately argued that marijuana would bring “embarrassment to Canadian culture,” while one of my teachers distributed a printed article from The Globe and Mail on the links between marijuana use and the onset of psychosis.

While these encounters are not a representation of every Canadian, they do align with an Angus Reid Institute poll, finding that only 28% of millenials are strongly against marijuana legalization, whereas nearly 50% of older demographics staunchly disagree. All the points raised in the adult and youth populations were valid, yet weighted differently to inform their respective agreement and disagreement with the new law. So why does the generation one belongs to generally align with their view on marijuana legalization? Part of this is based on people’s varying levels of cynicism in their predictions of the law’s impact on the unknown: whether adolescent consumption of pot will diminish, whether less marijuana will circulate on the black market and whether a shift in cannabis tourism will give Canada a reputation for being a westernized Amsterdam (and no, marijuana is not legal in the Netherlands).

Part of why teenagers, the greatest supporters and consumers of pot, are more likely to support legalization is because they do not fully grasp marijuana’s dangers to health, which are matters of fact, not opinion or prediction. In a study called “Canada Youth Perceptions on Cannabis,” it was found that the majority of adolescent consumers who perceived cannabis as a “safer” drug also were not able to explain its health risks. While there is much to be learned about the effects of marijuana on the human body, there is significant evidence linking regular use of marijuana with “cognitive deficits,” especially in the developing teenage brain, significantly decreasing efficiency of “mental processes involved in organizing, decision-making, planning and meeting long-term goals.”

Marijuana use into adulthood has also been observed as a contributor to not just psychosis, with its consumption doubling the risk of developing schizophrenia, but also other forms of mental illness, lower IQ, and substance use disorders. Even if it hasn’t been consumed during adolescence, marijuana use in adults can cause memory impairment for over a week after use and possibly cause lung cancer. While alcohol and tobacco are also legal substances with scientifically-backed health consequences and, technically, are equally “gateway drugs,” surveys have found that, unlike other substances, current education has failed to reverse the perception of cannabis as safe and beneficial beyond medical treatment.

Health consequences of pot use are the same now as before legalization, so the larger question that has yet to be answered is whether restrictions imposed with legalization will limit youth consumption. While it may seem contradictory that legalizing a drug results in less teens using it, in the past, prohibitions have not been effective either. There is major concern amongst 50% of Canadians that children will use the drug more with its increased prevalence and availability, thus rendering an educational reform necessary that stretches messaging beyond the “just say no” mantra. Instead, there is a push to include in schooling explanations of misconceptions, such as the belief that marijuana risks depends on the individual or that impairment while driving is less dangerous than doing so under the influence of alcohol.

On the other hand, in alignment with the view that a change in law won’t affect youth consumption, a recent Toronto Star article argued “if legalization harms any one demographic it won’t be rebellious teens, but older Canadians who buy their first gram in 35 years and discover the stuff packs a punch stronger than they had anticipated and heavier than they can handle.” With respect to my mother’s worries, the “weed stereotype” she referenced has existed in Canada since the legalization of medical marijuana in 2001, but it is the increased weed tourism that is also expected to bring an influx of profits, along with those obtained from taxing marijuana, to the Canadian economy. While most provinces and territories have banned public pot smoking, we can expect more leniency when a joint is lit up in public – however, legalization does not mean that we will be exposed to secondhand smoke everywhere we turn.

Wherever you may be on the spectrum of opinion on this issue, the reality is that marijuana is now legal and there isn’t much more we can do about it, except ensure that educational campaigns started by the Canadian government reach youth effectively, and cross our fingers that the law does reduce unsafe cannabis on the black market and restricts youth consumption.

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