Small glitches in On­tario’s cannabis rules

Pot plan shows prom­ise, writes Dr. Benedikt Fis­cher.

Ottawa Citizen - - OPINION -

Last week, On­tario pre­sented its draft reg­u­la­tions for cannabis use and sup­ply un­der the forth­com­ing fed­eral le­gal­iza­tion frame­work. Over­all, they present a good foun­da­tion to­ward pro­vin­cial reg­u­la­tions for im­proved pub­lic health and safety.

Specif­i­cally, they in­clude pro­vi­sions for a pro­vin­cial cannabis re­tail mo­nop­oly with be­hind-the-counter dis­tri­bu­tion; an age limit of 19 years for cannabis use; and a pledge for com­pre­hen­sive preven­tion and harm re­duc­tion mea­sures as re­lated to cannabis use.

How­ever, a cou­ple of is­sues in On­tario’s plan raise some con­cern.

While the age limit of 19 years for le­gal cannabis pos­ses­sion is a sen­si­ble po­lit­i­cal com­pro­mise — es­pe­cially vis-à-vis the cor­re­spond­ingly iden­ti­cal age lim­its for al­co­hol and to­bacco — a cru­cial ques­tion is: What will hap­pen to young peo­ple in pos­ses­sion of or us­ing cannabis un­der age? Let us re­mem­ber: Cannabis use rates are high­est among those aged 16 to 18, where as many as two in five in­di­vid­u­als are users. Le­gal­iza­tion will likely not de­crease this rate — but may pos­si­bly in­crease use rates, at least ini­tially, in this vul­ner­a­ble group. Law-break­ing in that group will be com­mon.

The pro­vi­sion to “al­low po­lice to con­fis­cate small amounts of cannabis from young peo­ple,” while pledg­ing the ap­proach will pro­tect youth and “fo­cus on preven­tion, di­ver­sion, and harm re­duc­tion with­out un­nec­es­sar­ily bring­ing them into con­tact with the jus­tice sys­tem” is nei­ther suf­fi­ciently clear nor re­as­sur­ing.

Un­der pro­hi­bi­tion, too many young lives have been harmed by the crim­i­nal con­se­quences of triv­ial cannabis-re­lated be­hav­iours. Re­ly­ing mainly on po­lice in­evitably will leave le­gal marks, and too eas­ily ex­tend young peo­ple’s en­tan­gle­ment in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem be­cause of some weed. To truly pro­tect the health and wel­fare of young On­tar­i­ans, we must find bet­ter ways to deal with this is­sue out­side of the heavy hands of law en­force­ment.

Fur­ther dis­con­cert­ing is the plan to re­strict cannabis ex­clu­sively to pri­vate homes. First, there is no good rea­son why cannabis, which is over­all not more haz­ardous to oth­ers’ health than al­co­hol or to­bacco, should be gov­erned more re­stric­tively in terms of sanc­tioned spa­ces for use (these other le­gal sub­stances can ei­ther be en­joyed in li­censed pub­lic premises, or in many pub­lic spa­ces). The pro­posed spa­tial re­stric­tions ex­tend a long-stand­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion in­her­ent in cannabis con­trol that should be re­placed by ev­i­dence- and pro­por­tion­al­i­ty­based ap­proaches as we move to­ward le­gal­iza­tion.

The use re­stric­tions also con­fine and marginal­ize cannabis use — to­gether with pos­si­bly a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion of cannabis pro­duc­tion, un­less the ill-ad­vised “home-grow­ing” fea­ture is deleted from fed­eral leg­is­la­tion — into pri­vate homes, with po­ten­tially ad­verse con­se­quences.

Pri­vate homes, af­ter all, are not just the homes of cannabis users, but many nonusers as well, in­clud­ing par­ents, spouses and chil­dren. Chil­dren should not be ex­posed to the health haz­ards of cannabis use (or pro­duc­tion), es­pe­cially since the home is the space most dif­fi­cult for au­thor­i­ties to con­trol. These pro­vi­sions seem mostly driven by “out-of­sight, out-of-mind” mo­tives, which ren­ders them short-sighted and counter to pub­lic health ob­jec­tives.

The use re­stric­tions also ig­nore the sen­ti­ment that le­gal­iza­tion will bol­ster the sta­tus of cannabis use as a so­cial ac­tiv­ity, rather than one con­fin­ing it to the prover­bial pri­vate “bed­rooms of the na­tion.” Many peo­ple are likely to defy the pro­posed pub­lic use ban and con­sume cannabis in pub­lic streets, parks and squares. What will en­force­ment au­thor­i­ties do? Ig­nore the pub­lic re­sis­tance? That would make a mock­ery of the cat­e­gor­i­cal pub­lic use re­stric­tion — which gives the best rea­son to scrap it now.

Or will vi­o­la­tions be en­forced? That would likely en­tail se­lec­tive and ar­bi­trary en­force­ment, fo­cus­ing mainly on a few and likely vul­ner­a­ble pub­lic users — and hence just re­pro­duce some of the in­jus­tices of cannabis­use en­force­ment un­der pro­hi­bi­tion prac­tices.

On­tario’s cannabis plan is a good first draft for sen­si­ble, pub­lic health-ori­ented reg­u­la­tions for up­com­ing le­gal­iza­tion, but with a cou­ple of wrin­kles that could spoil its oth­er­wise pos­i­tive foun­da­tion. These should, and can eas­ily, be re­vised by July 2018. Benedikt Fis­cher, PhD, is Se­nior Sci­en­tist, In­sti­tute of Men­tal Health Pol­icy Re­search, CAMH, and Chair in Ad­dic­tion Psy­chi­a­try, Depart­ment of Psy­chi­a­try, Univer­sity of Toronto.

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