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Marijuana policy: Are we protecting our children?

Twenty-year-old me can't believe 40-year-old me has come to this, sending out a warning call about the dangers of marijuana. There is more than a fragrant whiff of 'do as I say, not as I did' about this column.

But 40-year-old me has seen things 20-year-old me hadn't, like people around me coping with addiction and mental illness. So I'm here to be a wet blanket: As legalization approaches, let's focus on (spoiler alert, old lady phrase) our young people.

This week, the House Health Committee in Ottawa is listening to dozens of witnesses who have thoughts on pot policy. All involved should stay focused on why exactly legalization is happening, which isn't about giggly parties, or even raking in billions in taxes and profits.

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The point of all this is public health – which includes recognizing that the criminal justice system isn't the place to reckon with the vast majority of users, even abusers, of the drug. That goes for everyone in Canada, but teenagers and young adults particularly.

While marijuana poses fewer known health risks than tobacco and alcohol, its downsides are generally worse for those under 25. Chronic users risk cognitive difficulties, like memory loss and trouble paying attention, and that's particularly true for those whose brains are still developing.

The exact cause-and-effect relationship between marijuana use and mental illness is yet to be untangled, but psychosis and schizophrenia are both more common among those who used the drug as youth. It's well documented that this is the life stage when many mood disorders appear, making it important that young users know the risks and warning signs.

It's especially important given that Canadians under 18 are big fans of the drug, with about 26,000 Ontario teenagers using it daily. That number is from the October 2014 cannabis policy framework put out by the Canadian Association of Mental Health, which also included a 2013 UNICEF finding that Canadian youth are the biggest pot smokers among the world's 29 richest countries.

They're more likely to use marijuana than tobacco, even though one is illegal and the other isn't. That's exactly the point of legalization: regulation, oversight and education to convince those who really shouldn't use drugs of why they might reconsider.

Instead of useless "just say no" admonitions – "Why? Because it's against the law" – we're now on the hook to have complicated conversations with children about the pros and cons of getting high. Note to the federal government: It's well past time that parents and educators had a little official guidance on how those lessons could go.

Another one of the first principles of legalization particularly relevant to youth is about eliminating useless criminalization. It's distressing that the proposed legislation recommends those under 18 found with five grams or more of marijuana still be charged criminally. The House Health Committee is set to hear extensive testimony on that issue on Wednesday, and I hope the members are convinced to reconsider. As Ottawa lawyer Michael Spratt told the committee on Monday, this clause is silly, as "if full criminalization of marijuana doesn't deter a youth from possessing marijuana [now], a half-measure such as that won't do that, either."

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More importantly, marking teenagers caught with pot as bad kids that only the police can deal with is fully counter to the point of legalization. Not least because, as with so many aspects of the criminal justice system, the baggage of marijuana criminalization is carried most often by the same groups of people.

MP and former Toronto police chief Bill Blair has said himself that "the current enforcement disproportionately impacts poor neighbourhoods and racialized communities," and experts have spoken to the unfair targeting of Indigenous, black and brown populations.

The threat of arrest tells the most vulnerable young people that instead of helping them deal with their problems, Canada is going to punish them – maybe forever. Youth criminal records are generally sealed, but Mr. Spratt says this isn't always true in practice, meaning a 14-year-old caught with six grams of pot could have trouble travelling for the rest of their life.

The countdown is on to come up with a legalization plan that is fair and keeps public health front of mind. In honour of 20-year-old me, I hope that comes true for the children out there, especially.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says Ottawa is anxious to meet the summer 2018 deadline to legalize marijuana. Some police services have said they need more time for training. The Canadian Press
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