Byline: John Roe
When the recreational use of marijuana becomes legal in Canada in the next few years, how old should you have to be to join in the fun?
This issue - the legal age for buying and consuming cannabis - is the biggest single challenge facing the federal Liberals as they rewrite the law on this popular, but potentially harmful, drug.
A federal task force this week provided 80 recommendations for opening up the market for recreational pot. Most of the suggestions, which include permitting storefront and mail-order sales as well as allowing individuals to buy or carry up to 30 grams for personal use, are both reasonable and workable.
But the recommendation to allow sales to people as soon as they turn 18 is troubling because of the harm that medical experts say would result. The age should be higher.
Contrary to cannabis cheerleaders, the drug is neither totally benign nor problem-free. This is especially so for young people between the ages of 18 and 24, who are currently some of the greatest consumers.
The human brain continues to develop until the age of 25. Because of this, young people risk damage to their brains as well as other health problems if they smoke marijuana.
Knowing this, the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Pharmacists Association have both urged the government to set the legal age at 21. In addition, the Canadian Paediatric Society has expressed concern that the government has no plans to limit the concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in cannabis products sold to 18- to 25-year-olds.
A growing body of scientific studies shows the fears of these medical organizations are justified.
For example, a 2012 New Zealand study that followed cannabis users over several decades concluded that regular users experienced more cognitive problems than those who abstained.
People who began using marijuana as adolescents experienced the greatest cognitive decline. Research has also uncovered the possibility that young people who use cannabis are more susceptible to psychosis.
Saying this does not mean the Liberals should abandon their promise to change Canada's drug laws. There are compelling arguments for legalizing recreational marijuana.
Prohibition has failed to stop its use but driven the marijuana industry underground and into the hands of organized criminals. Meanwhile alcohol and tobacco, which cause far more damage to people's physical and mental well-being than cannabis, are legal though carefully regulated.
Recreational marijuana should be tightly controlled, too. Though setting the legal age for cannabis use at 25 seems desirable, it is impractical because it would surely lead to more black-market sales of the drug.
A more realistic compromise would set the legal age at 21. In the end, however, provinces such as Ontario may choose to establish a consistent legal age for both marijuana and alcohol - 19.
Whatever the legal age becomes in this country, governments should launch powerful, long-term public awareness campaigns to shatter the belief that marijuana is a safe high.
It is not. And the health of the next generation of Canadians is at stake.