The Georgia Straight - - Contents - > BY PIPER COURTENAY

Is sub­ject­ing youth to crim­i­nal­iza­tion un­der Bill C-45 a bad pol­icy? Ex­perts weigh in and sug­gest how to talk to your kids about pot.

“Cana­dian youth be­tween the ages of 15 and 24 are among the high­est users of cannabis in all de­vel­oped coun­tries.”

Whether mak­ing head­lines, sprin­kled through­out Se­nate hear­ings, or tossed around in idle chat­ter, it’s the one line that is dom­i­nat­ing the di­a­logue on the ef­fect of recre­ational-cannabis le­gal­iza­tion on young Cana­di­ans.

Those op­posed to Bill C-45, the Cannabis Act, re­lent­lessly abuse the fac­toid to con­jure images of brain­dead teenagers hov­er­ing around piles of “high po­tency” bud, mov­ing on to heroin when the weed fix won’t cut it.

Pro­po­nents of le­gal­iza­tion, on the other hand, are us­ing it as a cry for help, blow­ing the whis­tle on a sys­tem that is “clearly not work­ing”.

Jenna Val­le­ri­ani, who has a PHD in so­ci­ol­ogy and is a strategic ad­viser for Cana­dian Stu­dents for Sen­si­ble Drug Pol­icy (CSSDP), is con­cerned that in­creased pe­nal­iza­tion, a lack of ed­u­ca­tion strate­gies, and a dis­re­gard for the in­clu­sion of youth voices in the proposed leg­is­la­tion will mean more dis­crim­i­na­tion for an al­ready vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tion.

“We see 18- to 25-year-olds, fol­lowed by 12- to 17-year-olds, hav­ing the high­est num­ber of drug-re­lated ar­rests, the ma­jor­ity of them for cannabis possession. Crim­i­nal­iza­tion is cer­tainly not work­ing, and we are def­i­nitely miss­ing youth ex­pe­ri­ences,” she told the Straight.

“We re­ally fo­cused on the harms of cannabis and how it ‘can ruin young peo­ple’s lives’, but that doesn’t re­ally fit into the con­text of how young peo­ple ac­tu­ally ex­pe­ri­ence their cannabis use. The ma­jor­ity of young peo­ple are just us­ing oc­ca­sion­ally and ex­per­i­ment­ing.”

In her pre­sen­ta­tion to the Stand­ing Se­nate Com­mit­tee on So­cial Af­fairs, Science and Tech­nol­ogy last month, Val­le­ri­ani noted that of the 25 per­cent of youths who re­ported us­ing cannabis dur­ing the past year, only 2.5 per­cent re­ported us­ing in ways con­sid­ered high-risk for se­vere health prob­lems—a fact, she says, of­ten ig­nored in dis­cus­sions of preven­tion and harm reduction.

Although the leg­is­la­tion will al­low Cana­di­ans aged 12 to 17 to pos­sess up to five grams of cannabis be­fore fac­ing crim­i­nal charges, some prov­inces, like On­tario, are opt­ing for a zero-tol­er­ance pol­icy. Po­lice of­fi­cers and judges will have dis­cre­tion when it comes to en­forc­ing the new laws, which, Val­le­ri­ani cau­tioned, will open the door to dis­crim­i­na­tion against youths al­ready marginal­ized by things like eco­nomic sta­tus and race.

Scott Bern­stein, a lawyer and se­nior pol­icy an­a­lyst with the Cana­dian Drug Pol­icy Coali­tion, says the peo­ple al­ready dis­pro­por­tion­ately tar­geted for cannabis-re­lated ar­rests come from racial­ized and marginal­ized com­mu­ni­ties, and the new laws are likely to make mat­ters worse.

“Right now, the big­gest harm from cannabis to youth…is not the fact that they are us­ing it but the fact that they are be­ing crim­i­nal­ized for it,” he said.

Bern­stein said lay­er­ing on more re­stric­tions is only go­ing to ag­gra­vate an al­ready con­tentious prob­lem, while a “softer ap­proach”, like an ad­min­is­tra­tive penalty, would be bet­ter suited to the gov­ern­ment’s man­date of pro­tect­ing young peo­ple.

“Peo­ple need to un­der­stand that the ham­mer of crim­i­nal jus­tice on young peo­ple is the most se­ri­ous thing that can hap­pen,” he said, adding that in many cases, crim­i­nal records fol­low youths into their adult years, pre­vent­ing them from trav­el­ling and work­ing.

Treat­ing it like a traf­fic ticket in­stead, he sug­gested, ac­knowl­edges that some­one broke the law and cre­ates a penalty but elim­i­nates the lon­glast­ing harm of a crim­i­nal of­fence.

“We need to go to the fact that we are not in­vent­ing cannabis now. We don’t have to be afraid that peo­ple will start smok­ing cannabis, be­cause they al­ready are,” Bern­stein said, adding that ed­u­ca­tion would likely have a bet­ter out­come in re­duc­ing youth drug abuse.

In April, the CSSDP pub­lished the Sen­si­ble Cannabis Toolkit, an ev­i­dence-based ed­u­ca­tional re­source for par­ents and teach­ers that out­lines 10 prin­ci­ples for a new type of drug ed­u­ca­tion. Val­le­ri­ani, who worked on the project, said in­formed and non­judg­men­tal con­ver­sa­tions are the real first steps to harm reduction and preven­tion postle­gal­iza­tion.

“What they [youths] re­ally want is a cen­tral­ized, ev­i­dence-based place that they can ac­cess in­for­ma­tion,” she said, adding that youths want to be in­volved in the cre­ation of these types of re­sources.

“Lec­ture-style con­ver­sa­tions around drugs are not very ef­fec­tive. What is re­ally in­ter­est­ing is once you start talk­ing to young peo­ple about their cannabis use, they are so open about it but don’t have the av­enues very of­ten to talk with adults about cannabis.”

One Toronto-based chil­dren’s char­ity has al­ready de­vel­oped a fresh ap­proach to drug ed­u­ca­tion based on neu­tral­ity and in­clu­sion.

Danielle Suther­land, the cur­ricu­lum-de­vel­op­ment man­ager at Sky­lark Chil­dren, Youth and Fam­i­lies, has worked with more than 300 chil­dren and teens. She said the old sys­tem of sham­ing, essen­tially scare tac­tics, isn’t work­ing with kids any­more. Ses­sions, a Sky­lark youth pro­gram, in­vites par­tic­i­pants to en­gage in cre­ative ac­tiv­i­ties and lead group projects to fos­ter an in­formed di­a­logue.

“We came up with a model called in­te­gra­tive re­silience. We build re­la­tion­ships with our youth through ed­u­ca­tion and trust, and we’re find­ing that it has much bet­ter re­sults than other drug-ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams,” Suther­land said.

“If we can have the knowl­edge come from the young peo­ple in the room, through them ask­ing the ques­tions or driv­ing the con­ver­sa­tion, they’re more likely to ques­tion their own de­ci­sions and make pos­i­tive choices when it comes to cannabis use.”

Sara Ruiz/getty Images photo.

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