Why A Legal Toking Age of 21 Would Be Hypocritical

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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

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.

“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.”

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