Why a legal toking age of 21 would be hypocritical

If political leaders are really worried about the development of young brains, they’ll bump up the drinking age, too

A woman exhales while smoking a joint during the annual 420 marijuana rally on Parliament hill on Wednesday, April 20, 2016 in Ottawa. Some teens say their likelihood of using weed hasn't changed since the Liberal government announced details of its legalization plan - though they say it's made them more aware of information on both sides of the debate.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

People aged 18 to 24 are the biggest consumers of cannabisTHE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

It’s a disturbing thought that doctors and public health advocates have planted in politicians’ fully developed brains—that regular marijuana use by people under 25 has particular harms because, until that age, humans’ prefontral cortex is still maturing. Citing this, the Canadian Medical Association led the way in calling for a legal cannabis-consumption age of 21. But the federal government and its task force rebuffed the advice and recommended the minimum age of 18, with room left for provinces that want a higher limit—at their respective drinking ages or beyond.

Several provinces have launched consultations on the legal toking, and politicians appear either concerned or fully persuaded by the public health warnings: Prince Edward Island’s health minister has suggested the legal age match or exceed the province’s drinking age of 19; when the Quebec psychiatrists’ association recently urged setting the bar at 21 (above the province’s current legal drinking age of 18), and to “listen to science to protect future generations,” the provincial social services minister declined to comment. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi has called on Alberta to keep pot illegal for anyone under 21. “Twenty-five is probably excessive,” he conceded to reporters earlier this month.

While there has been no clear signal from any province or territory that it’s going to set the marijuana age above the legal drinking age, governments throughout Canada are actively entertaining this idea ahead of Ottawa’s legalization target date of July 1, 2018. They’re doing so in the name of health of Canada’s young, of course, and of the developing brain—a terrible thing to waste. If that’s the case, provincial policymakers are ignoring at least half the problem.

To be consistent, say experts, they should look beyond the intoxicant to be legalized in 2018 and consider the one that’s been legal since Prohibition ended in most provinces in the 1920s: it is, if anything, more dangerous than cannabis to teens and early 20-somethings.

RELATED: Justin Trudeau and the dangers of legalizing weed

“If you argue for 21, you have to argue for 21 for the other,” says Dr. Jurgen Rehm, who specializes in alcohol- and drug-related policy research at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). “If you want to make a difference based on the research, it would mean that you tend to be more strict with alcohol than with marijuana.”

Cannabis hazards for the developing-brain crowd include attention, memory and processing speed, studies have found. Ditto for alcohol, science has long shown, and there’s a greater hazard for booze, Rehm says, because of the usage patterns. It’s binge-drinking sessions and daily or weekly pot use that cause the most risk of brain degeneration in adolescents, and the bad drinking habits “by far are worse for the brain than whatever we expect from marijuana after legalization.”

The dangers of youthful drinking are also clear in driving statistics. Dr. Russ Callaghan of the University of Northern British Columbia estimated that Quebec could prevent 583 police-reported car collisions a year by bumping the legal drinking age to 21, given the preponderance of impaired driving incidents among newly legal beer-imbibers. One of his recent studies tracked the link between legal drinking and crime: starting the week after a person turns legal drinking age in his or her province, data show a nine-per-cent rise in violent-crime incidents compared to immediately before their birthdays, along with a 7.7-per-cent increase in all crime. Given pot’s famously mellowing effect, it’s hard to imagine an analogous form of reefer madness.

“Many people feel that drinking age laws are out of date, they’re leftovers and vestiges of a different era, and they don’t actually have an impact, Callaghan says, “but that’s not at all the case.”

Last month, Lithuania’s government decided to raise its legal drinking age to 20 from 18, in hopes of slashing one of the world’s highest alcohol usage rates–one that is 80-percent higher than Canada’s, which is already on the high side globally, according to the World Health Organization.

There have been, over the years, repeated public health pleas in provinces for higher legal drinking ages. When the CMA last year called for a Canada-wide cannabis age of 21, it went unnoticed that a parallel demand for the drinking age has been quietly on the doctor group’s policy list since 1984, when the Reagan administration effectively set that age as the minimum in every U.S. state.

In a 2013 report on alcohol abuse reduction policies, CAMH and other agencies set 21 as the Canadian ideal, hoping at least Quebec, Manitoba and Alberta would bump their limits to 19 instead of 18. Rather than provoking serious debate about health issues, it provoked this summation from the Sarnia Observer: “It’s every 18-year-old’s worst nightmare…”

Provinces lowered their drinking ages from early 20s to the teens in the 1970s, and nobody has shifted the bar for bar-going since 1987, when Prince Edward Island bumped its own up a year, to 19. Various motions and arguments for higher drinking ages reach premiers’ desks from time to time, and normally get brushed away: “If you’re going to rely on the law to ensure that your kids aren’t drinking underage, then you don’t have a good understanding of human nature,” Ontario’s Dalton McGuinty said in 2008. “Eighteen, 19, I know many, many people at age 18 are very responsible Albertans.”

Though politicians seem more open to calls for higher age limits for marijuana, they’ve been forced to move cautiously. The main thing holding them back is fear that setting the level too high would undercut Canada’s efforts to slash black-market purchasing, as people aged 18 to 24 are the biggest users of weed.

RELATED: A Canadian pot firm goes all in on ‘Colombian gold’

The consistency argument ought to come in on both sides of the cannabis age debate: if public health is the primary consideration, the drinking age should rise or stay the same in tandem, and shouldn’t lag. If libertarian or practical principles lead the way, they should be applied equally to the legal intoxicant and the soon-to-be-legal one.

Rehm suggests that some public health advocates may hold out hope that if provinces set 21 as the marijuana age, they’ll follow suit later with similarly hazardous liquor. Or they may be politically opportunistic, or pragmatic: “They would like to change the alcohol age as well, but they know there’s no chance,” he says. If political leaders, however, are persuaded by the health rationale for keeping pot out of young hands while laughing off the same arguments for booze, then their thinking isn’t fully developed, either.


Why a legal toking age of 21 would be hypocritical

  1. We need a graduated system rather than a hodgepodge.

    Marriage, driving, drinking etc.

  2. The hypocrisy is that pot causes mental illness , alcohol doesn’t.

    Besides having far more psychotic affects, pot stays in the bloodstream for over a month, so the brain never clears up if the frequency of use is less than that. Alcohol is out of the body in a few hours.

    Causality between mental illness and cannabis use has been determined.

    “There is now sufficient evidence to show that those who use cannabis particularly at a younger age, such as around the age of 15, have a higher than average risk of developing a psychotic illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.”


    • In reality, cannabis chemovars which are high in THC but lacking in CBD and some important terpenes may trigger psychosis in vulnerable individuals. Black market cultivators favour such chemovars. A recent study determined that we would need to prevent about 23,000 teens from consuming cannabis to prevent one case of cannabis-triggered psychosis. If cannabis caused psychosis then we would expect to see rates of psychosis rise and fall in the population with cannabis usage rates, but we do not.

      More to the point, the minimum age will not delineate who uses cannabis and who doesn’t, but rather who has access to legally regulated cannabis and who continues to buy cannabis from criminals who sell myriad drugs of unknown potency, purity and provenance, on commission, tax free, to anyone of any age, anytime, anywhere, no questions asked.

      Canadian teens consume the most cannabis for their age group in the industrialized world, they find cannabis easier to obtain than alcohol, they are twice as likely to try cannabis than try tobacco and their average age of initiation is 14. If criminalizing everyone who grows, sells or possesses cannabis does not prevent minors from obtaining and using it, then criminalizing 20-year-olds won’t help.

      Alcohol is a neurotoxin. If the minimum age for cannabis is higher than the minimum age for alcohol, we will essentially be encouraging young people to drink. Given that alcohol is implicated in roughly half of all suicides, homicides, accidents and sexual assaults, this would be a very bad idea.

  3. The hypocrisy is that pot causes mental illness , alcohol doesn’t.

    Besides having far more psychotic affects, pot stays in the bloodstream for over a month, so the brain never clears up if the frequency of use is less than that. Alcohol is out of the body in a few hours.

    Causality between mental illness and cannabis use has been determined.

    “There is now sufficient evidence to show that those who use cannabis particularly at a younger age, such as around the age of 15, have a higher than average risk of developing a psychotic illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.”


    • How did that happen?

      How did that happen?

  4. I wouldn’t have any problem at all if the legal age for both pot and alcohol was 25 with severe penalties for under age use. Both can cause significant issues and the later the exposure, the better.

    • The Canadian Association of Drug Dealers heartily agrees with you.

    • “Both can cause significant issues and the later the exposure, the better.”

      The keyword being “can”, that’s just no objective but does cover half the problem.

      I partially agree… With alcohol (a hard, drug), the damages to the organs, the brain (tissue damages and all the more serious, mental disorders it causes) at any and all ages, is incontrovertible and all the assumptions supersede objectiveness.

      On the other hand, we have nothing less than correlative, presuppositions (with no objective metrics) on any possible [pseudo] harms with Cannabis.

      What a joke, a disservice to moral humanity and science that’s being promulgated, all based on fallacious dogma.

      After all, it’s endogenous to us already little do most people yet realise.

  5. cause cancer?

    Not everyone who smokes gets cancer.

    There is evidence that those who smoke have a higher risk of contracting cancer.

    So considering the same relationship exists between pot and mental illness, how can Trudeau unleash it on millions of people.

    Pot stays in the bloodstream for over a month, if the frequency of use is more than once a month, the brain never recovers. Never sober.

    • “How can Trudeau unleash it on millions of people.”

      Unleash what? A sacrament? A human right? The most dangerous is already legal and that’s drug is called “alcohol”, commonly found in beer and wine.

      Are you one of those people who think, no one now consumes and only when it’s [re-]legalised, suddenly everyone will consume it? That’s insane if so.

      Never sober? Did you tell that to Carl Sagan and countless others? even actors, such a Morgan Freeman?

      Move over science, we have this person to listen to.

      Where and what year did you hear that rhetoric, because if you really believe in that, then the joke is on you, sorry to say.

      • Science has proven that pot causes mental illness.

        When was the last time your brain was sober?

        • Science has shown that there is a correlation between cannabis and mental illness. This correlation is due in part to people with mental health problems self-medicating with cannabis. See the “flyer” you shared on this subject.

          Cannabinoid metabolites may be detected in the bodily fluids of heavy cannabis consumers for days or even weeks following ingestion, however, these metabolites are not psychoactive. The acute psychoactive effects of cannabis last for about 6 hours when cannabis is smoked or vaporized and for about 12 hours when cannabis is eaten.

          • That long eh?

        • RODMISEK,
          I fully agree with both of your comments.
          There is another pot related issue well documented. Your IQ is a combination of what you were born with and what you learn. For pot smokers, who are heavy users, their desire to do anything other than smoke up greatly reduces and that includes the desire to learn. It is well researched that for these folks their mental development has been impaired. I do volunteer work at a addiction research centre and those that come in with pot addictions are a sad lot particularly those where pot has pushed them over the edge to bipolarism, schizophrenia or severe psychosis.

          • Take a look at:
            Addiction. 2017 Jun 23. doi: 10.1111/add.13923. [Epub ahead of print]

            As I said, through science we know cannabis does none of the damages claims and in fact, all those damages claimed for Cannabis are *only* from alcohol and many other mental disorders from alcohol as well (yes, beer and wine included).

            If my links were not still sitting in waiting for moderation, my points would be proven.

            I linked to both UK and Canadian studies as well.

  6. “… early 20-somethings.”
    It appears to affect the use of grammar too.

  7. Interesting discussion.
    THC is fat soluble. The brain is about 70% fat. THC goes into fat quickly & comes out slowly, taking as long as 3 to 6 wks. Ever wonder why it takes a regular user only a couple of “tokes” to get high again? They still carry THC in their brain.
    Alcohol is completely metabolized in 12 hrs.
    You drink wine or beer etc. to enjoy with a meal perhaps, you enjoy the taste, not (necessarily) to get “high”. One or 2 drinks socially or during a meal does not get one “high”. And, has no negative health effects. In fact there is much research showing small/moderate amounts of alcohol, beer, wines, etc. actually improves health & helps you live longer.
    The reason you smoke or ingest marijuana is to get “high”. Smoking a joint will get you high. There is nothing “medicinal” or healthy about smoking marijuana with its many carcinogenic & combustion by-products. It damages your respiratory system & body much as tobacco does.
    In food products especially, you have no idea & cannot control the amount of THC ingested. That is a problem with marijuana, the amount of active ingredients vary widely from one type to another, from one sample to another. Do you eat half a cookie? What about 2? Is that a trip to the ER? Children eat a THC laced brownie & go into respiratory arrest.
    Alcohol percentage levels, are carefully monitored, regulated, & displayed on the product label. (This is not in defence of alcohol, it has its own problems. But rather simply, why condone & legitimize a harmful product).
    Learning ability, motivation, general cognition, decrease with the amount smoked & the frequency of use. School performance decreases. Vocational & employment performance suffers.
    The brain is not fully developed until about age 25. Earlier marijuana use does inhibit the normal development of particularly the frontal lobes cortex in younger users. These are the areas of “higher function” thought processes.
    There is a relationship between marijuana use & the early onset of schizophrenia & other psychosis, particularly in those with a predisposition, family history, etc. Working in mental health care for over 30 yrs, we see it all the time. It is a gateway drug. I’ve never met a “heavy” drug user who didn’t “start” with marijuana.
    Regular marijuana use creates a plaque like build up between the receptor sites of the brain’s neurons, slowing message transmission. Stoner’s see this as being mellow or chilled out. Really, it’s just the brain’s activity being slowed down. This plaque is similar to that found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.
    If your pilot or taxi driver was stoned on marijuana the night before, would you ride with them knowing the THC is still in their brain? What about your surgeon? Not so cool, right?
    Decriminalize but don’t legalize or condone pot use.

    • Given, your experience with professionals dealing with the harmful affects of marijuana, could you speculate why perhaps there seems to be so little opposition to its legalization represented in the media?

      I know from speaking with a doctor of psychology expert in psychosis analysis, who gives lectures on the subject, that marijuana use closely correlates with psychosis. When I asked why professionals like him arent more vocal about it, he said that they fear the political repercussions and backlash.

      • Many of the media have grown up in a culture of normalization & acceptance of marijuana use since their college school days. It is “ok”, something to be taken lightly & in fact “quite cool” to use. Much research has been done since their school days showing a much darker side of MJ use.
        The political reasons, to get the 18 to 24 yo vote, have superseded the scientific & medical evidence. Evidence based decision making suffers in the name of political expediency. We were promised otherwise by this government.
        If you investigate, there is much opposition, to the legalizing & in effect the condoning of marijuana use. The CMA report on the same was highly critical, especially of its use among those under 25 years of age due its effect on the the still developing brain & related higher functions. Interestingly this is the area of the brain which because it is slower in development, gives young people feelings of being invulnerable, lacking of a sense of mortality, & leads to higher risk taking behaviours such as experimenting with drugs.
        Most claimed medicinal uses of pot, other than helping with adverse effects of chemo-therapies, & in some cases anxiety disorders, have never been scientifically tested or validated. Even in anxiety disorders, with marijuana there is often a paradoxical effect leading to an extreme state of paranoia. Hallucinations & delusions are not uncommon.
        And again, there is nothing medicinal about “smoking” marijuana.
        If the psychoactive compounds are synthesized out, refined & regulated as to the exact dosages, rigorous medical testing & research could be (and is) applied. These results have been mostly negative or inconclusive for all the beneficial, mostly anecdotal claims made by MJ advocates, who often themselves have a vested interest in its further use.
        Many seem to believe because MJ comes from a plant it is “natural”, a good thing, & cannot harm you. This belief is very common among teenagers.
        Cocaine, heroine, etc., all come from plants. Poison ivy is also quite “natural”.

        • Thanks for the reply

          It was worth the wait.

    • You’ve thrown a lot on the table, some of it correct, some of it incorrect and some of it partially correct.

      Regarding some drinkers drinking for the flavour, not intending to alter their state of consciousness, this would explain why non-alcoholic beer is so darned popular. In reality, an average dose of cannabis impairs an average cannabis consumer less than a glass of wine, or a .08 BAC.

      Cannabis may be vaporized, to avoid the by-products of combustion, but if the patient smokes cannabis moderately, or is dying from a terminal illness, the lung damage is insignificant, compared for example to the lung damage caused by living in an urban environment. Heavy cannabis smokers may develop chronic congestion, but smoking cannabis does not cause lung cancer or COPD. Look up the research of Dr. Donald Tashkin of UCLA.

      Bill C-45 does not have any provisions for edibles. Regulating edibles will be left to the provinces, but they will certainly require edibles to be sold in clearly labelled, child-resistant packaging, as do those U.S. states that have legalized cannabis. However, “grey market” dispensaries already sell normalized edible products and most label the THC and CBD content. They advise patients to start with a small dose, say half a cookie, and adjust their intake once they get the hang of it. Children most commonly poison themselves with cosmetics and detergents. Colourful detergent pods are increasingly problematic.

      Studies have found correlations between heavy, long-term cannabis use by minors and poor life outcomes, but they typically fail to control for alcohol, tobacco, socioeconomics and/or mental health problems. Most chronic cannabis consumers are self-medicating emotional and psychological problems such as ADHD and PTSD, typically stemming from childhood trauma. Nonetheless, Bill C-45 would set a provincial minimum age of 18 and allow the provinces to set their minimums higher, perhaps the same as they have for alcohol.

      Far from being a “gateway” drug, cannabis is an economic substitute for alcohol, opiates, benzodiazepines and other psychoactive substances, such that when cannabis use goes up, drinking and other drug use goes down. For example, opiate overdose deaths have dropped 25 per cent on average in U.S. states that have legalized cannabis for medicinal purposes.

      More to the point, criminal prohibition fosters a black market without making cannabis less popular or prevalent. If the intent is to protect minors from cannabis, abdicating control of the market to the criminal underworld is counter-productive, to put it mildly. Your pilot, taxi driver and surgeon is not deterred or prevented from consuming cannabis by prohibition, and your surgeon obviously has access to a wide variety of psychoactive substances if they are so inclined.

      Basically we have three choices with respect to who cultivates, sells and profits from cannabis in Canada; criminals, crown corporations or private enterprise regulated by the government. Of these three, criminals are the least concerned about public health and safety.

      I strongly recommend Canadians review the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs report of 2002, “Cannabis: Our Position for a Canadian Public Policy.” Spoiler alert; the committee unanimously and unambiguously recommended legal regulation and rejected mere “decriminalization” for several reasons which they explained in great detail in their 800+ page report.

  8. It’s a sad statement on our society when well unleash drugs for public consumption that cause mental illness, just for the tax revenue.

    Unlike alcohol which leaves the body in a few hours, pot stays in the body for over a month. That means if you use it more frequently, your brain never has a chance to recover. You are never sober.

    Just as cigarettes cause cancer, it has been proven that pot causes mental illness.