This research highlights the legitimate concerns parents have about cannabis legalization, and the need for information and education to address those concerns

Insights

Originally published on September 12, 2018 in The Globe and Mail coauthored by Ray Gracewood and Tony Coulson

As Canada moves toward the legalization of cannabis for adult recreational use later this year, polling shows that more Canadians support legalization than oppose it – and strong opinions on the issue are correlated with experience using cannabis. Support for legalization is near ubiquitous among regular cannabis users, whereas opposition is highest among those who have never used.

In advance of legalization, we asked a sample of Canadian parents how they’re feeling about this policy change; six in ten parents report feeling concerned. The three specific misgivings most often cited are fear that legalization will make it easy for kids to access cannabis at a young age; concerns about the impact of use on young peoples’ health and development; and concerns about legalization leading to addiction and drug abuse.

In view of these concerns, it makes sense that Canadian parents feel it’s important to have information on a range of topics related to cannabis and young people, including research on whether cannabis use is a gateway to “harder” drugs. They also want to know more about the comparative effects of different forms of cannabis (for example, edibles compared with combustible product), as well as research on the likelihood of cannabis use leading to tobacco smoking.

When asked about cannabis education for young people, parents prioritize teaching about the importance of not driving under the influence. They also want young people to be aware of the negative effects of cannabis use on growing bodies, the risks of combining cannabis with other substances and how to turn down offers to use cannabis.

This research highlights the legitimate concerns parents have about cannabis legalization, and the need for information and education to address those concerns. Our findings also reveal a need for enhanced public information and discussion about the policy objectives of legalization and how the government intends to achieve them.

One of the main objectives of legalizing cannabis is to protect children and youth by shrinking the black market – by definition unregulated and without age requirements – and simultaneously limiting their access to the legal cannabis market. Retailing of legal cannabis will be undertaken with controls similar to those currently in place for alcohol; and the marketing of cannabis products is set to be tightly controlled, particularly when it comes to branding or packaging that might entice young people.

Parental opposition to cannabis legalization based on concerns about easier youth access suggests a need for stronger government communications around the objectives and parameters of legalization, and how the retailing of legal cannabis will be controlled.

The fact that parents have concerns, however, is not surprising. The legalization of cannabis represents a seismic shift in our collective thinking. Given how deeply ingrained the stigma against cannabis is in many quarters, it may take a generation or more until the product and its use are normalized. The introduction of legalized recreational cannabis is a long-term initiative that will require patient and purposeful collaboration among the private and public players involved. These most recent polling results only underscore that there is much work yet to be done.

While parents’ fears aren’t surprising, they do raise the question of how well private industry and government are working together to provide the information Canadians are looking for. A tremendous amount of valuable information about cannabis and its use is available from a range of sources, including private firms, all levels of government and post-secondary institutions that are beginning to see cannabis education as a viable business opportunity.

As the effects of this policy change roll out, it will be critical for both the cannabis industry and governments to step up their efforts to provide practical information to the public, including parents and young people, and to foster an informed public dialogue about cannabis legalization and how it’s meant to work. Only then can parents and institutions work together effectively to protect the health and well-being of young people.

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