Should there be consequences for underage cannabis use?

Published Jan 23, 2021 10:00 a.m. ET
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There has never, even for a moment, been a question of whether or not we should restrict underage exposure to cannabis products and advertising as much as possible. Legalizing cannabis just like alcohol meant restrictions that would only allow mature adults to buy it, and typically we can agree that this is a good thing. We really have no idea what cannabis can do to a developing brain and body, but the evidence we do have, suggests that there could be a significant risk when underage users consume cannabinoids.

How we protect kids from cannabis

Most countries keep tight restrictions when it comes to advertising cannabis products in any way that might appeal to youth. In many, it’s illegal to make a product that might be enticing for underage people, even if it’s wrapped in completely painful packaging, and we charge, arrest and even jail any adults who might be responsible for making access to cannabis for kids easy. Other specifics vary greatly from one region to the next, but most of the consequences we see in place now are intended to hold the adults in charge of the situation responsible for their poor choices.

How we currently punish underage cannabis use

No matter how hard we try to police the sale of cannabis products, they will end up in the hands of our youth, and at that point, what happens will depend on where you’re from. Some areas have no child-specific consequences or laws when it comes to weed, while others like Ontario will take action if an underage person between the ages of 12-17 is found possessing or consuming cannabis. It’s a pretty crazy mishmash of restrictions out there because no one is really sure how we should handle this situation.

Tossing a fine at youth or their parent(s) for smoking pot isn’t going to do anything other than cost them some money. An arrest or placing an underage person in jail for a time also does nothing to positively influence their decisions, as we should know all too well by now after the failed war on drugs. Community service, probation, juvenile detention, these things do absolutely nothing to help the very kids they are meant to protect, and yet we continue down this path of blind punishment without cause. Still, it’s not an entirely hopeless situation because we know better, and so we can do better.

Should there be no consequences?

It’s illegal to sell cannabis to an underage person, but what should a police officer do if they come upon a group of teens getting high on the school playground? There is no adult to be seen to charge or arrest, and they appear to be staying out of trouble aside from the obvious fact that they’re stoned, and they shouldn’t be. Should any adult just walk on by youth consuming cannabis and ignore it completely? It would certainly be less stressful for parents and less financially consuming, but where would that leave them? The truth is that doing nothing simply is not enough.


So, what could we do that might be better?

We know that cannabis offers a host of medicinal benefits, some of which can be very helpful for people of all ages including youths, but without a prescription or a valid need, kids getting high for the fun of it should not be ignored or encouraged. Instead, what it should and could be is a valuable teaching moment that we grasp hold of in an attempt to change the future. That’s right! What we need is to start educating youth about cannabis.

We’re not suggesting anything so drastic as boot camps or boring lessons. No, to reach the minds and hearts of our youth, we need to reach out, relate, and educate in a way that is engaging. Perhaps a connection with a social worker who is well versed in the adverse effects, for those who genuinely don’t know. This alone could be a huge deterrent for this type of behaviour, but that’s not all that we could be doing to make a positive difference.

No matter how hard we try, there is going to be a certain group of youth who will not stop using cannabis, even after they know all of the risks. For them, basic education might only be the beginning of their journey. They may need a guiding hand as they wade even deeper into cannabis consumption, and if safety is truly our number one priority, then shouldn’t we also want these youth to be safe? It’s a tough question to ask, and one that’s even more difficult to answer.

Some experts believe that in some cases, the facilitation of a safe experience is the best that we can hope for, as it’s impossible to keep all underage consumers away from cannabis. Recently we saw intriguing evidence that was revealed to support this when researchers discovered that cannabis consumption seemed to help some teens to avoid addiction to other more dangerous drugs like opiates. In many cases, the lesser evil truly is the better solution.

Of course, we would need people to make these kinds of assessments, and we’d need systems in place to support them. We’d also need an open mind and logic-based design to come up with a process that actually helps underage people who turn to cannabis. There is a lot of work to do before we can achieve this big of a change, but it is possible and necessary for their future.

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