OTTAWA — “The reasons we set the minimum age of 18 are because we recognize that Canadian youth between the ages of 15 and 24 are among the highest users of cannabis in all developed countries. So we recognized that if we went with a higher age for a minimum age, we would not divert them from getting out of the black market. We wanted to make sure we did all we could because we want to prevent that from happening.”
— Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor, March 28, Senate social affairs committee
The Liberals campaigned on a promise to legalize — as well as regulate and restrict — marijuana for recreational use, arguing the existing regime was doing little to keep it out of the hands of young people.
The Cannabis Act, also known as Bill C-45, sets the minimum legal age for the purchase of cannabis at 18, although provinces were allowed to raise the age as they saw fit. Most provinces and territories are harmonizing it with the legal age for alcohol.
The Conservatives, largely against the proposed legislation, have been asking why the legal age is not higher, given the concerns some health professionals have about the impact on young, developing brains.
The Liberals have often responded by saying that Canadian youth consume cannabis at a higher rate than virtually anywhere else, so raising the minimum legal age any higher would do little to get the drug off the black market.
Do young Canadians really smoke more weed than anyone else on the planet?
Spoiler alert: The Canadian Press Baloney Meter is a dispassionate examination of political statements culminating in a ranking of accuracy on a scale of “no baloney” to “full of baloney” (complete methodology below).
This one earns a rating of “a little baloney.” Here’s why.
Several cabinet ministers have made some version of this claim, with some, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, going so far as to say underage Canadians are using marijuana at a higher rate than kids anywhere else in the world.
Usually, like Petitpas Taylor, they add some nuance placing Canada near the top of the heap, and note this is a ranking among developed countries.
The Liberal government says it based the assertion on a 2013 report from UNICEF, which compared the well-being of children in 29 advanced countries. It found 28 per cent of Canadian youth age 11, 13 and 15 said they had used cannabis over the previous year, which was higher than any of the other countries in the report.
Those conclusions were drawn from data the World Health Organization had collected in 2009-10 as part of its regular international survey on the health-related behaviour of school-aged children in 37 countries. The federal government says a team of researchers at Queen’s University administers the Canadian aspect of the survey, with funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada.
UNICEF did not revisit the topic of cannabis use in its most recent report on children in developed countries, but the WHO has since published an updated version of its international survey, using data collected in 2013-14.
A 2016 report the WHO published on that data showed Canada was in fifth place when it came to 15-year-olds who reported using cannabis in their lifetime. Canada was in second place behind France when it came to 15-year-olds who had used it within the past 30 days.
Statistics Canada has started paying more attention to cannabis as the country gets ready for the new reality.
One thing the agency recently did was analyze how prevalence of cannabis use by Canadians — broken down by age group — has changed over the years. The period from 2004 to 2015 allows for the best comparison because of methodology.
In February, Statistics Canada reported current marijuana use declined among females between the ages of 15 and 17 over that time period, but remained stable for males of that age. Usage rates also declined for Canadians of both sexes between the ages of 18 to 24.
Meanwhile, the analysis showed prevalence increasing for adults of both sexes between the ages of 25 and 64.
That does not mean, however, it is now wrong to say youth are using marijuana at a higher rate than older Canadians.
Statistics Canada also found that in 2015, 28 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 18 to 24 had used cannabis in the previous year, which was significantly higher than those aged 15 to 17 and 25 to 44, who were tied for second place at nearly 18 per cent.
On Wednesday, Statistics Canada also released the first set of data from its new national cannabis survey, which showed 23 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 15 and 24 having used cannabis in the past three months. Twenty-six per cent of Canadians aged 25 to 34 did the same.
Michelle Rotermann, an analyst with Statistics Canada, said it is usually a good idea to look at more than one data source.
“Maybe don’t just hold up one and say, ‘This is what this one found,'” she said.
Dr. Robert Mann, senior scientist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, said the UNICEF report lines up with what his institution has found in the regular surveys on drug use by Ontario students it has conducted since 1977.
“It sounds pretty reasonable, actually,” Mann said.
The centre’s 2017 survey found 19 per cent of Ontario students in Grades 7 to 12 reported using cannabis at least once within the past year. The prevalence increased as students aged, with the rate of use being about two per cent in Grades 7 and 8, but nearly 37 per cent in Grade 12.
Mann said he understands why the Liberals would cite the statistic when pressed on their choice to allow 18-year-olds to buy pot, given so many are using it despite it currently being against the law.
“What you really want to do is try to shut down the illegal pathways and find the best way to do that,” Mann said.
Amy Porath, director of research at the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, said she agrees young people should be delaying their introduction to marijuana as long as possible, because the brain is still developing and maturing until about the age of 25.
Still, she said that current rates of use — including those cited in the UNICEF report — show public education, rather than raising the minimum age, strikes the right balance, especially since the age at which people can purchase alcohol is also at 18 or 19 across the country.
“If you have a different age for cannabis, a different age for alcohol, that’s really going to send a mixed message to young people,” she said.
The Liberals are being accurate — so long as they provide the caveats — when they say Canadian youth are among the most frequent users of cannabis in the world, especially since several domestic sources also show high usage rates.
Still, the UNICEF report the Liberals are citing does not actually include anyone over the age of 15, so it was a bit of a stretch for Petitpas Taylor to include Canadians as old as 24 in her claim, especially since there is far more detailed — and perhaps more useful — data available within Canada.
For this reason, her statement contains “a little baloney.”
The Baloney Meter is a project of The Canadian Press that examines the level of accuracy in statements made by politicians. Each claim is researched and assigned a rating based on the following scale:
No baloney — the statement is completely accurate.
A little baloney — the statement is mostly accurate but more information is required.
Some baloney — the statement is partly accurate but important details are missing.
A lot of baloney — the statement is mostly inaccurate but contains elements of truth.
Full of baloney — the statement is completely inaccurate.
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Joanna Smith, The Canadian PressShare on Facebook