The Only Law that Always Works Is “The Law of Unintended Consequences”

Quebec, Canada’s beautiful French speaking province, finds itself with the worst COVID-19 situation in Canada.

The Canadian political website reports:

“Quebec, with less than one-quarter of Canada’s population, is the country’s worst hit province. It accounts for a staggering 59 percent of all COVID-19 deaths and 54 percent of cases in Canada. … Quebec is responsible for over 60 percent of new Canadian deaths and cases over the last week, meaning its share of Canada’s COVID-19 problem is still increasing.”

In the midst of this tragedy, the provincial government decided to go ahead and raise the legal age to consume and purchase recreational marijuana from 18 to 21. (The legal age for alcohol remains 18 in Quebec and 19 in the rest of Canada.)

In fairness to the province, the decision was announced last year, and it went into effect the first of the year, a few months before the pandemic. But the timing could not have been worse. Now, young cannabis users will be forced into the black market with no health and potency regulations. (Street dealers don’t practice social distancing, and they often sell other “drugs” that really are dangerous.)

When the decision was announced last year, before the pandemic, it was widely criticized. noted: “Its recent decision to raise the legal age for cannabis consumption to 21 is simply bad policy, poorly thought out. It’s also very likely to further thwart primary legalization objectives, which were to keep cannabis out of the hands of children and youth and take the profits out of the hands of illegal vendors, particularly organized crime.”

The Conversation also noted that “Canadians have been among the world’s most ardent cannabis users for some time. On the eve of legalization, 26.9 per cent of Canadians aged 15-24 had used cannabis in the previous quarter, a figure that has stayed relatively flat in the year since.”

Historically, Canada has long had a relatively high rate of cannabis use, and Quebec, reflecting its French heritage, tended to favor hashish over bud, at least until they started growing plants for the U.S. market, which was sometimes sold as “BC Bud” which the prohibitionists claimed was “so potent it was traded pound for pound for cocaine.” (Utter nonsense)

Ironically, Quebec’s action was followed by a new “scientific” study that suggested that the “minimum legal age for cannabis use should be 19” and that “general health was significantly better in those who started using cannabis at age 18 than those who started using marijuana earlier.”

The author of the report, Dr. Nguyen, said: “Taking into account all measured outcomes, our results indicate that, contrary to the Canadian federal government’s recommendation of 18 and the medical community’s support for 21 or 25, 19 is the optimal minimum legal age for non-medical cannabis use. Keeping the legal age below 21 may strike a balance between potential increases in underground markets and illegal use, and avoiding the adverse outcomes associated with starting to use cannabis at an earlier age.” (The data seems to say 18, but the political conclusion says 19, because???)

While I like the general conclusion, it should be noted that deciding the proper age for legalizing cannabis use, based on health considerations, is not the same as deciding on the best social policy, which involves many other considerations.

Again and again, it should be noted that – for more than 40 years – the Dutch “coffeeshops” have been selling cannabis to anyone 18 and over. (The minimum age use to be 16 until about 20 years ago.)

A major measure of the success of the Dutch policy is what they call “separation of the markets¨ for cannabis and “hard drugs.” Very simply, when you buy cannabis in a “coffeeshop,” no one offers you heroin or cocaine. And the Dutch rate of hard drug use is much lower than in the U.S. or Canada.

According to the international accounting firm KPMG:

“Canada is in the midst of an opioid epidemic that is now being identified as a national public health crisis. With approximately 2,500 apparent opioid-related deaths in 2016, which is an average of eight deaths per day, Canadians are the second highest per capita consumers of opioids in the world after the United States. Preliminary data for 2017 suggests that this figure will surpass 4,000 Canadian deaths.”

The number of deaths from overdosing on all illegal drugs in the Netherlands was only 262 in 2017. (The population of Canada is roughly twice the Netherlands.)

As noted, the legal drinking age in Quebec remains 18, but it is 21 in the U.S. as it is for marijuana in American states that have legalized it.

Now, let’s compare the public health outcomes for alcohol and marijuana using U.S. data.

From the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (

“Alcohol is the most commonly used and abused drug among youth in the United States.

“Excessive drinking is responsible for more than 4,300 deaths among underage youth each year, and cost the U.S. $24 billion in economic costs in 2010. Although the purchase of alcohol by persons under the age of 21 is illegal, people aged 12 to 20 years drink 11% of all alcohol consumed in the United States. More than 90% of this alcohol is consumed in the form of binge drinks. On average, underage drinkers consume more drinks per drinking occasion than adult drinkers. In 2013, there were approximately 119,000 emergency rooms visits by persons aged 12 to 21 for injuries and other conditions linked to alcohol.”

Of course, there is no lethal dose for marijuana, but people who have “over indulged” in marijuana edibles sometimes panic and go to the ER, but they always recover from everything except the embarrassment.

Now considering both the success of the long term Dutch “coffeeshop” policy, and the vast difference between the risks for cannabis and alcohol, it seems obvious that we should start treating adults like adults. If 18-year-olds can vote and serve in the military and kill and/or be killed, they should certainly be treated like adults when buying cannabis, which does not kill or get someone killed, except by the narcs or black marketeers, or by bad public health policies like the Drug War.

If prohibition actually worked then we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Teens and adults wouldn’t be using alcohol or marijuana or anything that was illegal for them. But meanwhile back in the real world, I think that the only law that always works is “The Law of Unintended Consequences.”

Richard Cowan is a former NORML National Director and cofounder of


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