It's been three years since Canada legalized adult-use cannabis, but prohibitionists' fears that legal weed would destroy the country's children have failed to materialize.
When the country’s lawmakers began debating their historic legalization bill in early 2018, several leading Canadian health organizations advocated against it, citing fears that legal weed would find its way into the hands of children. But instead of scrapping the bill altogether, lawmakers wisely implemented provisions to restrict youth access to weed and voted to approve the bill.
And based on current research, it looks like they made the right decision. A new study published in the Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry has found “little substantive evidence” to support the claim that adult-use legalization has increased teen cannabis use or otherwise adversely impacted the lives of Canadian children.
In the new study, researchers set out to “reconsider the arguments made about the potential consequences of legalization for youth, centered on three key concerns: that prevalence would significantly increase, that there would be greater incidence of harms to youth brain development, and that there would be increased presentations of severe mental illnesses associated with cannabis use.”
Using data from annual government surveys and independent research studies, researchers investigated whether teen pot use increased after the country legalized weed. An annual survey on teen drug use from 2018 to 2019 found that 18 percent of students in grades 7 to 12 said they had smoked weed – the exact same percentage that smoked weed in 2016 to 2017, before weed was legal. In fact, the most dramatic increase in cannabis use after legalization was among adults over the age of 45, not teens.
Research studies from adult-use US states confirm that this phenomenon is not unique to Canada. Studies from Colorado, the first US state to legalize, report that underage cannabis use has been on the decline since legal pot became available. The evidence disproving links between legal pot and increased teen use is so strong, in fact, that US federal anti-drug officials have even been forced to admit it.
The Canadian study also addresses concerns that cannabis use is especially dangerous for anyone under the age of 25. Although there is some evidence that regular pot use could interfere with cognitive development in younger adults, the study authors concluded this research “potentially overstates evidence of risk.” The researchers also note that underage alcohol use causes equal or greater risks to brain development than cannabis, a fact conveniently ignored by politicians and prohibitionists.
Concerns that legal weed would increase adverse mental health incidents among children and teens were also shown to be unfounded. Some studies have reported an association between pot use and mental illness, but researchers have never been able to conclusively determine that weed is actually responsible for mental health issues.
Many new studies are now suggesting that these associations are explained by the fact that teens struggling with mental illness are actually more likely to use cannabis. Just last month, a Canadian study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found no conclusive link between teen pot use and depression or suicidal thoughts.
“With such categorical fears now shown to be largely unfounded, this should provide the basis to move forward on more nuanced grounds,” the authors of the present study concluded. “On the balance, cannabis legalization – especially when considering the severe adverse social impacts of criminalization, and especially for youth – continues to offer the potential to better protect, and achieve consequential net benefits to public health and welfare of cannabis users and society at large.”
“From a public health standpoint, regulation and education are preferable strategies to criminalization,” said NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri in a statement. “Overall, adult-use legalization is working largely as voters and politicians envisioned, which is why an increasing number of jurisdictions are shifting their policies in this direction.”