Small glitches in Ontario’s cannabis rules
Pot plan shows promise, writes Dr. Benedikt Fischer.
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.