Ottawa Public Health

Why do we have a minimum legal age for substances?


By: Jessica Brett, Public Health Nurse

Setting a minimum legal age to buy and use substances, like alcohol, tobacco and soon cannabis, helps to protect youth from the harms of substance use and prevent access.

In Ontario, the minimum age to buy alcohol is 19 years old. As the legalization of cannabis approaches, there is a lot of debate about what the minimum age should be.

Have you noticed the debate over the minimum age? We’re legally considered adults by age 18 and we can make our own decisions, right?

There are benefits to having a minimum age to buy and use substances. Can I share with you how it makes sense to have a minimum age for cannabis?

I’m 24 years old. Turns out my brain, and your kids, continues to grow and develop until we are around 25 years old. During the teen years the “thinking brain”, which controls decision making, is still maturing.

If a teen uses cannabis while the thinking brain is growing, it may not develop normally. This is because the chemical in cannabis, THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), hi-jacks the normal system. That causes the teen to use their “emotional brain” instead of the thinking brain, which causes poor decision making. These changes to the brain may be irreversible.

The same goes for alcohol… the teen brain is still maturing. That explains why youth can act impulsively and have a hard time setting limits on how much they drink. Alcohol effects the brain by altering decision making, problem solving abilities and slowing reflexes, so your teen’s ability to make decisions are even more affected when they drink.

Here is what you need to know:

Drinking young + more often = a risk of future problems

So my main point is: setting a minimum legal age helps to protect youth from these harms.

A higher minimum age is shown to:

  • Lower the overall number of teens who drink alcohol
  • Lower alcohol-related car crashes and injuries
  • Lower the chance your teen will get drugs from friends

Parents are teens first line of defence against drugs.

Talk with your teen about why there is a minimum age for alcohol, tobacco and soon, cannabis.  And how using early can affect how they grow and develop. As a parent, you can have a bigger influence on your child than you may think.

Here are some resources to start the conversation:

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