5 Years of Cannabis Legalization: Looking Back, Looking Forward
This week marks five years of cannabis legalization in Canada. The provincial Cannabis Control Act came into effect on October 17, 2018, and established a legal framework for the minimum age of possession, consumption, sale, distribution, purchase, transportation, and cultivation of cannabis in Ontario.
Since the legalization of cannabis in 2018, YouthREX has collaborated with community partners to support youth workers in better understanding the health, social, and legal impacts of cannabis use for young people, and how to navigate conversations about making informed decisions about cannabis use. We partnered with the Provincial Youth Outreach Worker Program at Strides Toronto to develop and launch a free online certificate in 2020, Cannabis & Youth: A Certificate for Youth Workers. We also partnered with youth engaged in Youth Outreach Workers’ programs from across Ontario to redesign What’s With Weed, making it more youth-friendly and interactive by drawing from human-centred design thinking.
On behalf of YouthREX, I joined other youth advocates, practitioners, and researchers at a stakeholder roundtable in February 2023 held by the Expert Panel appointed by the Government of Canada to conduct a legislative review of the Cannabis Act. This review is tasked with investigating the impacts of cannabis legalization, with specific attention paid to youth, and to explore these impacts and the perspectives and experiences of the youth-serving sector.
The legislative review and the fifth anniversary of legalization were the impetus for a two-part community dialogue on cannabis and youth that YouthREX hosted in partnership with the Ontario Native Education Counselling Association (ONECA), Provincial Youth Outreach Worker Program at Strides Toronto, and YMCA Youth Cannabis Awareness Program on this year’s 4/20 (April 20, 2023).
Through engaging presentations from youth sector initiatives and interactive breakout group discussions, we created space to collectively reflect on the lessons, emergent questions, concerns, and needs of young people in the five years since legalization – and considered how we might chart a path forward for the next five years.
Looking back and looking forward, participants explored the following questions: What are the lessons from the cannabis and youth initiatives focused on public education, advocacy, capacity building, and youth-led engagement launched following the legalization of cannabis? How can we sustain such work to continue supporting young people?
As we reflect on five years of cannabis legalization, here are 7 key takeaways from our conversations at this event that brought together more than 120 community stakeholders:
1. Youth need safe spaces – non-judgmental and free from stigma.
A community stakeholder noted that the cannabis harm reduction slogan “go low, go slow” also applies to conversations about cannabis with youth. Each young person must be met where they are with affirmation and support, using harm reduction approaches.
2. Youth cannabis use intersects with mental health.
A young person’s reasons for using cannabis may connect to their experience of their mental health. Appropriate and adequate funding for community-based mental health training, resources, and supports is crucial.
3. Continued funding for public education, advocacy, and capacity building initiatives is essential.
Extended outreach activities and up-to-date, evidence-informed resources can ensure access to information for youth workers and for young people and their families. Funding inconsistencies can result in the challenge of having to stop and restart programming, which can jeopardize consistent staffing and relationships with youth and community members.
4. Trends around cannabis use will continue to change.
The sector must stay informed and relevant in correcting misconceptions, reducing stigma, and supporting youth to make informed decisions.
5. Effective collaboration is needed.
Existing initiatives could be linked and supported through funded conferences and an ongoing community of practice.
6. Diversity in the legal cannabis industry must be prioritized.
The industry must include a range of producers, creators, and leaders, and can be mandated to direct a percentage of profits to communities historically stigmatized, marginalized, and criminalized prior to legalization. Diversity within the cannabis industry would not cancel out the need for financial reparations with the communities most impacted by cannabis prohibition.
7. Investments in services must be prioritized over investments in surveillance and policing.
Drug prohibition was used as a justification for the militarization of policing, over-incarceration, and systemic discrimination. An investment in services would more holistically safeguard the health and wellbeing of young people, families, and communities.
The YouthREX Team and our partners will continue to reflect on what we’ve learned over the five years of legalization as we strive to support youth wellbeing, advocate for youth mental health, sustain public education, and engage in ongoing discussions about the economic and policy impacts of cannabis legalization.
Looking to learn more? Check out a collection on our Knowledge Hub on cannabis use curated for practitioners.
You can also watch a keynote by Dr. Oyedeji Ayonrinde from YouthREX’s 2020 Roundtable, Looking Through the Kaleidoscope of Cannabis. Dr. Ayonrinde is a Member of the Expert Panel conducting the federal legislative review of the Cannabis Act, and also a member of YouthREX’s Academic Network.