On Oct. 29, Quebec’s National Assembly passed Bill 2, which will raise the legal age for Cannabis consumption to 21 on Jan. 1, 2020. This change comes as a result of a major campaign promise made by the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) ahead of last October’s provincial elections, despite Quebec already having some of the strictest cannabis laws in the country. The CAQ and other proponents of the bill argue that the changes will curb the potentially harmful effects of cannabis on adolescents, while critics say such measures are ineffective. Overall, Bill 2 is both dangerous and contradictory, and in response institutions like McGill should pursue programs and policies in favour of harm reduction.
After about a year and a half of debate in the federal House of Commons, the government passed the Cannabis Act on Oct. 17 2018. Supporters claimed that legalization would reduce organized crime, bring in tax revenue, and keep the substance out of the hands of underage people. The federal legislation allows provincial governments to set their own regulations for the use of the drug, and Quebec already had some of the most rigid regulations in the country prior to the introduction of Bill 2. For example, while Canada recently legalized the sale of edible and topical cannabis products, the CAQ has decided that products that may be attractive to minors, like pastries and candies, will remain illegal. Quebec is also in the middle of a legal battle regarding whether their ban on home-grown cannabis is constitutional.
“Overall, Bill 2 is both dangerous and contradictory, and in response institutions like McGill should pursue programs and policies in favour of harm reduction.”
The problem with Quebec’s restrictive laws, particularly Bill 2, is that they fail to prevent young people from using cannabis, despite this being their purported goal. The CAQ claims that the new age restrictions are meant to set a precedent and will come with education programs intended to dissuade youth from using the drug. However, this is wishful and unrealistic thinking. According to Quebec Liberal Party health critic Andre Fortin, 31 per cent of 18-to 24-year-olds consume cannabis. There is little evidence that the new legislation will do anything to bring these numbers down.
Instead of allowing young adults to visit Société québécoise du cannabis (SQDC) stores to get information from specialists regarding THC concentration as well as safe consumption, it seems that the Quebec government would rather pass legislation that is likely to cause young people to return to their dealers. Unregulated products often have higher levels of THC and, in rare cases, can be laced with dangerous substances. While provincial governments should be looking for ways to promote the purchase of regulated cannabis as opposed to unregulated products (such as with lower prices and a higher concentration of dispensary locations), Quebec has taken a step in the opposite direction.
Quebec’s decision is part of a broader debate surrounding measures that should be taken to promote harm reduction, and whether current legalization efforts are sufficient. Advocacy groups like Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP) are taking a different stance than the government on drug use. The group advocates for progressive drug legislation and policies, including the legalization and regulation of all drugs, as well as a designated space for medical cannabis use on campuses and education programs to encourage responsible cannabis use for youth. The McGill chapter of CSSDP is currently looking into providing free drug testing kits for students in order to reduce harm, a resource which is less specifically relevant for the use of cannabis but extremely pertinent for safe drug use more generally.
The CAQ is clearly not ready to put the legitimate needs of young people first and would prefer to pander to its socially-conservative base. Where the government fails to act responsibly, institutions like McGill should follow the lead of groups like CDSSP and provide financial and institutional support for harm reduction programs.