Quebec's new 21-and-up cannabis law is unconstitutional: Julius Grey

Quebec's new 21-and-up cannabis law is unconstitutional: Julius Grey
“I don’t know how this enhances a free and democratic society; I think it will be thrown out.”

T'Cha Dunlevy, Montreal Gazette
Updated: November 2, 2019

Quebec’s new law changing the age you can smoke pot legally to 21 from 18 won’t hold up in court, according to lawyer Julius Grey.

“I think it’s flagrantly unconstitutional,” said the Montreal human-rights activist. “At one point, 21 was the age for voting; that’s been changed, and I think any attempt to return to it would be unconstitutional. At 18, or even younger, you can serve in the army, you can do all sorts of things. (The new law) is patronizing, and it’s age discrimination.”

The fact that 18 is the legal age for cannabis in Canada will make it difficult for Quebec to justify raising that limit, Grey said.

“I don’t think it passes the Section 1 test (of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms), which says these rights are subject to such reasonable limitations as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

The law could be challenged as soon as someone is charged, once it goes into effect on Jan. 1, Grey opined.

“If they file a constitutional challenge — and I very much suspect they will — they will win it.”

Children 12 to 18 are allowed to possess up to five grams of cannabis, according to federal law; but the new Quebec amendment says that no one under the age of 21 is allowed to possess or give to another person any amount of cannabis, with offenders subject to a fine of $100.

That doesn’t sit right with criminal lawyer Andrew Barbacki.

“They cannot make the mere possession of something illegal provincially,” he said. “It smacks of outright prohibition. The best analogy is heroin — you couldn’t make it legal (in Quebec), or bar a substance like Red Bull.”

Quebec’s new cannabis regulations drew mixed reactions in other quarters. Some say it won’t stop young adults from smoking pot, and will just push them back to the black market. Others herald it as good news for young people’s health.

Miguel Quesada, 22, a client at the Société québécoise du cannabis store on Ste-Catherine St., is confused by the new rules.

“I kind of see why they would make such a change,” he said, “but at the same time it’s kind of useless. I started smoking at 18, with a friend who started when he was 14. It just opens more options for underground activities. It’s easy to find. I’ve lived in Montreal North all my life. You go to the dep and a few people ask you (if you want to buy weed); they don’t care about your age.”

Over at Vanier College, student association president Lucas Diacoumacos, 18, is happy about the new legislation.

“People’s brains are still developing until they’re 25,” he said. “It’s really detrimental, putting bodies through the recreational use of marijuana. So I support the actions the government is taking. It’s to prevent people from harming themselves.”

Vanier student Noah, 20, disagrees.

“The fact that you can buy alcohol, which is a legitimate poison to the body, when you’re 18 years old, but you can’t buy something that has absolutely no harm on you? It should be 18, the same as alcohol.

“You can buy cigarettes when you’re 18 years old — so great, you’re going to get cancer, but you can’t smoke something people take for health benefits?”

The new law won’t change young people’s consumption habits, according to Noah.

“You’re not going to be able to go into a store and buy it, but there are drug dealers everywhere. There’s a reason why kids start smoking before they start drinking. It’s so much more accessible. A drug dealer’s not going to ask for your ID.”

At Portage, an addiction treatment centre for youths ages 14-18, the new laws are being welcomed as good news in the fight against dependency.

“Eighty-eight per cent of the people who come to Portage list cannabis as a main substance they use, out of 500 adolescents we treat every year,” said Seychelle Harding, director of communications.

“That’s the vast majority. We see the damage it does to adolescents. We understand kids try these things; but the later in life you try drugs, the less likely you are to become addicted and the better equipped you are to make smarter choices.”

During consultations around the new cannabis law, Montreal’s regional health agency shared its opinion that the legal age to buy and possess cannabis should be kept at 18, “to avoid 18-to-20-year-olds turning to the illegal market and its riskier products,” according to spokesperson Justin Meloche.

Youth organization Head & Hands sees the law as an infringement on the rights of young adults, preventing them from making their own decisions.

“Traditionally, Quebec has been very progressive when it comes to marijuana consumption,” said Richenda Grazette, director of development and communications. She thinks the province is now headed in the other direction.

“This is a regressive law that amounts to scare tactics around something that was supposed to be legal in Canada. Now the law is taking away the ability of 18-year-old adults to consume marijuana in the way they want.”

The repercussions of such legislation will be especially felt by marginalized communities, she noted.

“If you do consume and you’re underage, you’re more likely to be criminalized,” she said. “This will disproportionately affect poor people and people of colour, homeless people and the under-housed.”


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