The cannabis experience from the U.S. tells us the kids will be all right

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In 2012, Washington State voted to legalize marijuana. By 2014, the world’s first system for legally growing, processing and retailing cannabis was operating.

As Canada prepares to go live with pot sales in a few months, what can we learn from four years of practical, hands-on experience in the western United States?

The first take-away is that all the fretting about the impact on children and teens is largely unwarranted.

Before legalization, 17 per cent of Grade 10 students in Washington State said they had smoked pot in the previous month. Four years of legal doobies later, 17 per cent of Grade 10 students say they have smoked pot in the previous month.

“We thought we would see a significant increase in teen use,” said Rick Garza, director of the Washington State Liquor Control and Cannabis Board. “But what the kids will tell you is that they didn’t need adults to legalize it to get their hands on cannabis.”

Many teens experiment with marijuana, as they do with alcohol (about two-thirds for the two substances), but only a minority use them semi-regularly. The presence of legal retail outlets and legal age for purchase (21 in Washington State, 18-19 in Canada) doesn’t make a whit of difference.

Mr. Garza, who spoke to the annual conference of the B.C. Pharmacy Association in Victoria last week, noted, however, that legal sales have made a dent in the black market.

“Research shows we have 63 per cent of the cannabis market, which far exceeds our predictions,” he said. People continue to buy street drugs largely because it’s cheaper. Wresting control of the drug trade from the mob is complicated.

In Washington State, cannabis sells from about US$7 a gram and up (the same or lower than the street price, especially when stores stage promotions such as $2 Tuesdays). Only 60 per cent of sales are dried cannabis and oil; 26 per cent of sales are extracts for inhalation and vaping; most of the balance is edibles. (In Canada, edibles will not be legal until 2019.)

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Washington State imposes a 37-per-cent excise tax on all cannabis-related products, plus retail sales taxes that vary locally. In Canada, cannabis will sell for about $8-10 a gram (only in dried and oil form), plus an excise tax of $1 a gram, or 10 per cent, whichever is higher, as well as sales tax.

Washington State charges excise tax on both recreational and medical cannabis, which are sold side-by-side in retail outlets.

Canada has – and will continue to have – a separate system for users of medical marijuana, of which there are currently 240,000 registered. There has been a push to exempt medical marijuana from the new excise tax, the argument being that it is a prescription drug that is essential.

Washington State’s experience in this area is informative. It legalized medical marijuana in 1998 and had 130,000 authorized users. After the legalization of recreational marijuana, that number fell sharply to about 30,000.

“It was really easy to get a medical card,” Mr. Garza noted. “We estimate that only about 20 per cent of medical users were using for medical reasons.”

Larry Wolk, Colorado’s Chief Medical Officer, made a similar observation. “About 97 per cent of medical cannabis users are 20-year-old snowboarders with chronic debilitating pain,” he said with a laugh.

At the same time, Dr. Wolk said there are legitimate uses for medical cannabis, such as Dravet syndrome and other seizure disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, nausea and so on, but more research is needed to determine effective strains and doses.

Dr. Wolk said that the most reassuring news for lawmakers in Canada is that legalization of cannabis has had virtually no impact on public health in Colorado or other states. (Recreational marijuana is now legal in nine U.S. states and the District of Columbia, and medical marijuana is legal in 29 states.)

There has been no appreciable increase in cannabis use, especially in young people, there has been no increase in impaired driving, and only a slight blip in emergency-room admissions, which Dr. Wolk attributes principally to pot tourists who come to Colorado and overindulge, particularly on edibles.

For all the rhetoric about the potential harms of legalized cannabis – especially from the Canadian Senate – the objective evidence from the jurisdictions that have lived with it for years is that we don’t have much to fear.

The kids will be all right. So will their parents and grandparents – who will actually be the consumers of legal cannabis.

 

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