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Spare Us The Moral Panic Over Quebec Cannabis Store Near School

Those criticizing the location minutes from CÉGEP du Sainte-Foy conveniently overlook several alcohol retailers that pose greater risks.

Two weeks ago, Quebec announced new locations of le Société Québécoise du Cannabis (SQDC). Within hours, Quebec City media was falling over itself to indignantly report a location would be roughly 500 metreswithin minutes! — of CÉGEP du Sainte-Foy.

Quebec Education and Family Minister Sebastien Proulx.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot
Quebec Education and Family Minister Sebastien Proulx.

Locating an SQDC store 500 metres from a college is not against the law — it's twice the 250-metre buffer from schools required by Bill 157. Yet the threat of legal cannabis within a half-kilometre of a college attended by 17- and 18-year-olds raised the ire of Education Minister Sébastien Proulx, who said, "This location [...] in my opinion, it's too close to our schools. [...] It's not a good place. [...] Does the SQDC have to be located in a high-traffic area with cars, tourists and citizens? In my opinion, no."

What Proulx and the media failed to mention, however, is the prospective SQDC location at 2491 Chemin de Sainte-Foy occupies half a building, the other half of which is a Couche-Tard dépanneur, which sells beer, wine and high-alcohol malt liquor. Across the parking lot is an Irving gas station that sells the same. Continuing along the parking lot road separating the two buildings, there's a shopping mall containing a SAQ. There's also a Metro grocery store and a dépanneur (convenience store) even closer in the opposite direction.

(A 2014 report found in Quebec City the average distance of dépanneurs from schools was 566 metres.)

The moral panic over the prospect of cannabis being sold within a half-kilometer of a college largely attended by adults at a location surrounded by alcohol retailers is a fine example of the farce that results when public officials are too busy freaking out about cannabis to educate themselves about the drug and its harms.

In Quebec, alcohol is everywhere, but minors won't even be allowed inside the SQDC, whose windows will be smoked glass and whose door by law will have a posted warning about cannabis's potential health risks. These certainly exist, but they're nothing compared to the array of disabling and fatal consequences of alcohol, which kills 5,000 Canadians annually, and sends some 75,000 to the hospital.

Minors are allowed to browse the aisles of SAQs, to say nothing of grocery stores, gas stations, Couche-Tards and other dépanneurs. None of these have to post warnings about alcohol, and unlike SQDCs, they're given broad permission to advertise their products.

(The SAQ closest to my house boasts a nearly one-storey high window display advertising a new brand of gin.)

Underage college students who want to smoke weed are already doing it.

CÉGEP St-Foy surely has its fair share of 17-year-old students who — like the 18 per cent of those their age across Canada — use cannabis. There has never been a shortage of neighbourhood dealers for that age cohort, but today those dealers have to compete with Canada's dozens of black-market Mail Order Marijuana (MOM) internet sites. Underage college students who want to smoke weed are already doing it, and if figures from Colorado and Washington's much less rigorous legalization are any indication, youth cannabis use isn't likely to increase after it's legal.

The cannabis for sale at the scandalous SQDC outlet will be a few dollars per gram more expensive than what youths can already get — so paying someone above 18 to buy it for them won't be cost-effective, either. Minors simply aren't going to use more cannabis because there is an SQDC outlet in the same neighbourhood as their college.

Mayara Klingner / EyeEm via Getty Images

But maybe they should. If young people who were going to get intoxicated either way chose to consume cannabis over alcohol, that might actually have a public health benefit.

As it stands, 20 per cent of Quebec youths (12 to 20) engage in what Statistics Canada considers "heavy drinking," and Quebec's Éduc'alcool reports nine per cent of the province's young drinkers (15 to 24) suffer from "abuse or dependence."

Consumed in large and regular doses, cannabis is probably bad for the developing brain. But regularly consuming alcohol is likely worse for teenagers. In addition to the manifestly negative effect it too has on brain developing, alcohol damages the liver, and early drinking may contribute to lifelong dependency. Alcohol is also strongly connected with physical and sexual assault, and routinely kills and sickens teenagers through both drunken misadventure and simple alcohol poisoning.

(Prior to the death of 14-year-old Laval teen Athene Gervais after drinking 11.9 per cent sweetened malt-liquor FCKDUP, "four or five" teenagers were admitted to ER with alcohol poisoning every Saturday night in Montreal.)

The harms associated with cannabis aren't fatal, and that difference matters. The majority are mental-health hazards, though heavy cannabis smoking may harm the lungs and heart. (Some research suggests we don't yet know enough about cannabis's effect on the lungs.) Yet as we're aware of the far more significant harms associated with alcohol, as a province we exist happily with alcohol for sale on every corner.

The only reason Sébastien Proulx and the Quebec City media are panicking is that cannabis was made illegal for flimsy reasons and stayed illegal long enough that its use remains stigmatized by those who know too little about it. Alcohol hasn't been illegal in Quebec since 1919 (nearly the same amount of time cannabis has been criminalized), and accordingly we embrace it as part of our social and cultural fabric.

The Quebec City district of Ste. Foy.
The Quebec City district of Ste. Foy.

For that reason we talk rarely about how the glass of wine our province sees as emblematic of its joie de vivre also causes cancer, cirrhosis, pancreatitis and brain damage. It's the SQDC, not the SAQ, that's legally obliged to post a warning on its non-transparent door about its products' potential adverse health effects.

Like everything else associated with cannabis in Quebec, this last frenzy over the St-Foy SQDC location has been a hysterical overreaction to a minuscule danger. The only difference is this time the site of discussion was surrounded on three sides by a far greater risks that we ignore because they're familiar to us.

These heated and vacuous debates about cannabis have always been an embarrassment to our province, but as the most absurd, the latest frenzy made us look the worst. Hopefully this means the wave is breaking and we'll eventually see our elected leaders slide from the froth of outraged ignorance toward the clarity of reason. But with the Coalition Avenir Québec leading the polls ahead of this fall's election and promising to get even tougher on legal cannabis, that's probably too much to hope for.

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