Article by John Geddes, MacLean’s
There’s a point Prime Minister Justin Trudeau often circles back to when he’s asked to explain his motivation for legalizing marijuana. “We need to make sure it’s at least as difficult for a young person to get their hands on marijuana as it is for alcohol,” he said in a typical exchange this summer on City’s Breakfast Television show in Vancouver. “Right now, it’s way easier to get a joint than a bottle of beer.”
Trudeau repeats this claim so often that it’s clear he regards it as a persuasive, real-world observation. If he’s right that it’s easier—indeed, way easier—to get illicit weed than mere beer, then presumably marijuana will also become harder for young people to acquire after he changes the law to treat pot more like alcohol. After all, as he says, “There’s no black market for beer.”
But the way Trudeau ranks the availability of the two most popular intoxicants poses a problem: teenagers don’t agree with him. By a wide margin, more of them say booze is easy to get than think weed is easy to come by. This under-examined finding comes from the authoritative Canadian Student Tobacco, Alcohol and Drug Survey(CSTADS), which probes the views of thousands of students, every two years, about the substances they use and sometimes abuse.
The survey helpfully asks about “ease of access.” The 2014-15 edition of CSTADS, which Health Canada funds and federal policy-makers rely on extensively, found that 41 per cent of students in Grades 7 to 12 thought it was “very easy” or “fairly easy” to obtain marijuana. When asked the same question about alcohol, fully 67 per cent said it is “very easy” or “fairly easy” to get. The survey was taken by 42,094 students—a huge sample—from all 10 provinces between fall 2014 and spring 2015.
Experts tend to agree with the students. Asked about Trudeau’s assertions that alcohol is far less easy to get than marijuana, Dr. Karen Leslie, who heads the adolescent substance abuse program at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, said, “I don’t see on what basis that claim would be made.” Like several other leading researchers Maclean’s contacted, she pointed to studies that consistently show alcohol is far more often consumed by young people than marijuana.
According to CSTADS, for instance, 40 per cent of Grade 7-12 students reported drinking alcohol in the past 12 months, more than double the 17 per cent who said they had smoked marijuana in that period. “Teenagers are not having a difficult time in getting alcohol,” Leslie said, “even though, in theory, they’re not legally able to purchase it.”
Of course, imposing new regulations around marijuana—similar to those long used to prevent underage drinkers from buying alcohol in bars or stores—is bound to change the way the drug marketplace functions. The federal law to legalize sale of marijuana to adults will make it a crime to sell to anyone younger than 18 (provinces can set a higher age limit). It imposes tough sentences—up to 14 years in jail—for supplying cannabis to youth. Packaging and promotion that might appeal to young people won’t be allowed.