Which is harder for young people to get their hands on: legal alcohol or criminalized marijuana? Many people, whether harkening back to their teenage years or (because they didn’t indulge in their youth) engaging in pure speculation, have an opinion on the subject.
And while polling data doesn’t seem to be available, I suspect that which side you fall on is a decent predictor of whether you support the federal government’s plan to legalize marijuana. After all, no decent adult wants kids to smoke more of the drug. If you truly believe that legalization will make it easier for them to get their hands on weed, that might, at the very least, give you second thoughts about the whole idea.
The simple reality is that determined youth will always be able to find an unscrupulous adult willing to provide them with their substance of choice — whether it be alcohol or marijuana. Yet I have no illusions that a regulated market will limit youth access and I do not consider this among the benefits of legalization.
As politicians and bureaucrats at all levels of government try to sort out a regulatory framework to allow adults to have access to legal marijuana while keeping it out of the hands of minors the discussion has largely revolved around the issues of minimum age, pricing and the penalties for selling cannabis to minors.
While these are all important questions that need to be settled, I fear that focusing too heavily on choking off the supply to youth misses a big piece of the puzzle. This isn’t a problem we can legislate away.
If we want to take the reduction of youth consumption seriously — whether the target is alcohol, cigarettes or cannabis — far more than half the battle is going to have to be fought on the demand side of the equation. If we want to keep drugs and alcohol out of the hands kids the whole solution cannot be found in making it harder for them to get, it is to somehow convince them that they ought not want them.
Sounds tough. How do we do that?
We can find some success in recent moves against youth smoking. Youth smoking rates are dropping and I don’t think that’s because they can’t get their hands on cigarettes (although pricing may be a contributing factor). Cigarettes are still readily available on high school grounds.
But I get the sense that smoking just isn’t as glamorous as it used to be and the message has gotten out there that it comes with some serious health consequences. Ask yourself when the last time you heard anyone suggest that taking up smoking might be a good idea.
Right out of the gates the government is ensuring that we don’t make the same early mistakes with marijuana that society made with respect to cigarettes (and continue to make to this day with alcohol) by limiting advertising and packaging.
Government is also indicating that there will be public health campaigns highlighting the deleterious side effects of marijuana use.
These are worthwhile initiatives, but government cannot do this alone. Some of the onus will fall on you and I, as members of civil society, and the culture we create. Our attitudes towards marijuana will make a difference.
And hopefully we don’t make the same cultural mistakes with marijuana that we are currently making with alcohol. Let’s be honest: We have a culture that glamourizes the excessive consumption of alcohol in this country and it is particularly acute in this territory. Everytime we are treated to new round of statistics showing Yukoners to be far and away the biggest alcohol consumers in the country some Yukoners take to their Facebook page to hold it up as a badge of honour. We, the Yukon drinking team, are some hardcore boozers. We can hold our liquor and drink those southern lightweights under the table.
It would probably go some distance if we Yukoners — adults I mean — stopped glamourizing consuming alcohol to excess. Not only does excessive alcohol consumption carry a potential for overdose and contribute to risky behaviour it actually has some of the same brain modifying tendencies for young people that cannabis does.
What is needed is a culture shift toward encouraging moderation, but at the same time we ought to avoid the hyperbole and moralizing, absolutist tone of prohibition. Youth may not be fully developed but they are smart enough to realize when adults are exaggerating.
There are no perfect solutions here and it is important we not fall victim to the nirvana fallacy — whereby we assume that if we can’t fix things completely we have failed and ought not try at all.
The debate over whether it is easier for youth to get access to (legal) alcohol and cigarettes or (illegal) marijuana misses the point. All are ubitquitous in society. And there will always be adults with no qualms about providing them to kids.
Laws and regulations will only go so far to curtail our consumption of alcohol and, in the future, marijuana. Prohibition of weed has been an abysmal failure in curbing consumption — young Canadians use more marijuana than anyone else in the world. And the evidence from jurisdictions that have legalized cannabis is that it does not affect youth consumption one way or another.
But it is similarly doubtful that regulated access will make things any better. It certainly isn’t working with alcohol.
If we want to keep cannabis out of their hands of youth, or at least limit the amount they consume, we are going to have to convince them somehow that they don’t want it. I’d suggest that much of our energy ought to be focused in that direction.
Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.