Ottawa urged to hold huge public education campaign about pot’s risks for youth

OTTAWA — Youth health experts are warning the federal government that its push to legalize recreational cannabis should be accompanied by extensive public-education and prevention campaigns that spell out the serious risks of pot consumption on adolescent brains.

Parliamentarians heard this message numerous times Wednesday during a House of Commons committee hearing to study the Trudeau government’s legislation to legalize marijuana.

Ottawa plans to legalize cannabis for adults 18 and older within 10 months, but some provinces and police services have warned the federal timeline is far too tight for them to properly prepare for such a major change.

Now, the government is facing demands to do everything possible to ensure young Canadians and their parents are ready for legalization.

Several witnesses said there’s little chance stronger regulation will deter youth from consuming pot. Therefore, they recommended the government work hard to dispel the notion marijuana is a harmless substance.

“We have already legalized medical use and people automatically draw the conclusion that all cannabis is the same: it’s good for your health,” Dr. William Barakett, an advisory council member for Drug Free Kids Canada, told the committee.

“Adolescents will procure and use cannabis regardless of the legal restraints,” he said, adding that makes creation of an elaborate, public-education program essential.

“We need to educate people — people just don’t understand.”

Barakett, who said he treats addicts every day, was among several experts who testified that Canadians still know far too little about the long-term, negative effects cannabis can have on young brains.

Witnesses suggested the campaign target youth, parents, teachers and anyone else in close contact with young people. They also urged the government to provide tools to help adults speak to youth about the risks.

Dr. Christina Grant, an adolescent medicine specialist, ran through some scientific findings for the committee.

“There can be no doubt regarding the scientific literature that cannabis use prior to the mid-20s is associated with structural and functional harmful effects on the developing brain,” said Grant, an associate professor of pediatrics at McMaster University.

She said rigorous studies have shown a connection between regular cannabis use among youth and an increased risk — of 40 per cent — that they will have a psychotic episode. Other research, she added, has shown a relationship between marijuana use and clinical depression.

“There needs to be more of a conversation — there’s lots of myths around cannabis use for youth,” said Grant, who was representing the Canadian Pediatric Society.

“They’re getting lots of information from cannabis YouTube channels and different lobby groups, but there’s not clear messages around what are the risks.”

Amy Porath, a director for the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, said her organization has visited the states of Washington and Colorado in search of advice.

They recommended strong, up-front investments in evidence-based public education and prevention , she said.

In its March budget, the government committed $9.6 million over five years for a public education and awareness campaign as well as surveillance activities.

Drug Free Kids Canada launched a new multimedia, awareness campaign about the risks of pot in June. Marc Paris, the group’s executive director, estimated that an extensive national campaign could easily cost tens of millions of dollars per year.

“The secret to it is to keep doing it,” Paris said.

“Education messages can’t just be a six-week spurt.”

The government, which hopes to legalize pot by next summer, has stated its main goals are to get marijuana out of the hands of young Canadians and to cut off criminal activity. Ottawa has not shared details about how much tax revenue could be generated by a regulated recreational cannabis market.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated his government’s message Wednesday that legalization is all about protecting children and communities.

“We know that as it stands right now, underage Canadians have easier access to marijuana than in just about any other country in the world,” Trudeau said in St. John’s, N.L. following a cabinet retreat.

“It’s easier for a young person to buy a joint, than it is for them to buy a bottle of beer. That’s not right. We need to make sure we are protecting our kids and that’s why we’re moving forward with legalizing, controlling regime for the marijuana.”

Earlier this week, the parliamentary committee heard from police from Ontario, Saskatoon and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.

They testified that they needed an extra six months to a year to properly train their personnel, boost the number of officers certified to conduct drug-impaired driving tests and to educate the public.

Without an extension, they warned organized crime would use that early, post-legalization period to gain a foothold under the new system and flourish.

But on Wednesday federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Ottawa was anxious to legalize marijuana by next summer despite the police warnings.

Goodale noted that Ottawa announced $274 million in funding over the next five years to help police prepare for legalization.

“Obviously it challenges people to meet the objectives — but the time frame is a solid one,” Goodale said.

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