Cannabis, attachment, and teenagers, Oh my!


As many of you know, I recently took a position as Councillor’s Assistant for my own municipal councillor, Glen Gower (visit the website, subscribe to the newsletter, Follow All The Things), community advocate and overall great guy. When I worked for Pierre Lemieux on Parliament Hill I used to say “Pierre is the best boss so it’s all downhill from there” and, well, it looks like I knocked it out of park boss-wise again. My new workplace doesn’t feel like a boss and three employees but rather like four people with different gifts and abilities plugged into the same circuit for the same purpose. Glen often speaks of his work at City Hall as the work that “we” do and it’s one of the little things that go a long way in making people feel like they matter. I’m a lucky minion.

Working as an assistant is a weird space to occupy for someone who has been CEO, President and Self-Appointed Dictator for Life of her universe for quite some time. It’s challenging, especially when I feel the swell of strong feelings rising. I have to remember that if I wanted a voice at City Council, I was free to run against my boss and have my ass handed to me. It’s a free country.

In the meantime, I would be immensely grateful if you allowed this blog to remain my little corner of the Internet and didn’t assume that my opinions reflect those of my boss or the city. I’m going out on a limb assuming that my readership is small and loyal enough to protect me from the pitfalls of being a staffer with a personality. But if you make me choose between y’all and my paycheque, I’m going to have to go with the paycheque and a big gaping hole in my heart.  Check? Check.

Last December 13, the Ottawa City Council met for what some called “pot day,” a special council meeting to debate and otherwise equivocate on the impending licensing of cannabis retail stores in Ontario. Keeping cannabis out of the hands of children (by which Public Health means people under 25, Ontario means people under 19, Quebec means people under 21 and most parents mean anyone who was born to them) is the primary public interest concern driving the regulatory framework of cannabis retail. What “public interest” means differs based on your profession: Doctors doctor, Lawyers lawyer, Accountants account, and politicians represent their constituents with the range of wisdom and intellect we expect in nature. I’m not a doctor, no longer anything resembling a lawyer, I can’t math and was not elected to anything, but one thing I know how to do is impart a healthy dose of perspective and encouragement to parents who are wondering what the heck is going on with cannabis.

Cannabis is legal in Canada and regulated in Ontario by the Alcohol and Gaming Corporation of Ontario. The Ford government set the table for Ontario municipalities by taking away their powers to regulate cannabis retail stores through zoning by-laws. In essence, if a municipality allows retail stores somewhere, it has to allow cannabis retail. It cannot limit the number of licenses issued on its territory, it cannot regulate the clustering of cannabis businesses in certain parts of town, it cannot increase buffer zones around schools and daycares, etc. Many people compare the cannabis regime to alcohol sales through the LCBO  but in Ontario cannabis laws and regulations are comparable to cigarette laws and regulations. Got it?

As far as we know — and until it changes again tomorrow — cannabis will be available in 25 retail locations in Ontario starting this January. The retail license regime went from authorizing up to 75 licenses per distributor to 25 for the whole province overnight. Cannabis has been available for purchase online since last October so the question at this point is not when will legal cannabis come to your neighbourhood — spoiler alert: it already has — but rather when will it be available in brick & mortar stores around the corner.

As parents, the public discourse about drugs and alcohol has a sense of inevitability. We exist in a weird place of confused messaging from our governments whereby cannabis, like alcohol and gambling, is seen as just another business when it comes to revenues but a dangerous boogeyman when it comes to its impact on society. We are told to consume freely, but not too much, enjoy, but not too often, send as much money as you can in tax and duties but stop just shy of costing us more in treatment and social services, ok? It’s like abstinence-only sex education: stay far far away from this evil stuff until you reach this magical point (age, marriage) when all this truly evil stuff will suddenly turn good in a puff of glittery smoke. We put buffer zones around schools and hide products behind blinds as if children could walk out of school and accidentally step into a life of addiction.

I’m not concerned about legal cannabis. There I said it. As things are now — and have been since I was a teenager —  it’s easier to come by 10 gr of pot around any given high school than it is to buy beer. There is not a single contractor pick-up truck or delivery van in my neighbourhood that doesn’t reek of pot. If you think that pot shops herald the end of civilization, remember that your kid’s high school is currently the local pot shop.

My concern when it comes to drugs and alcohol is not whether my children — by which I mean anyone born to me, whether they are actually children, teenagers or full-grown adults — will try it but whether they will become habitual users or addicted.

I was in a relationship with an addict for two years. He had started drinking at age 12. In the province of Quebec, where alcohol is sold in corner stores to people over 18, he would walk out of his house to catch the school bus, buy a litre of wine at Mac’s milk, and drink it all before his bus turned the corner and picked him up. All the drugs eventually followed as they tend to do.

They say that cannabis is the gateway drug leading to stronger stuff but it’s not cannabis that causes the addiction, it’s whatever the addict is trying to numb. The root of addiction is not the substance, it’s the pain of illness, of loneliness, of dislocation. Cannabis doesn’t have to be laced with Fentanyl to become addictive: it only has to fill a hole, numb a pain, or scratch an itch. I learned the hard way that trying to control the substance without addressing the pain is an exercise in futility. And the pain is dyed in the fabric of the person, sometimes woven right into their DNA. That’s why our parenting leading up to the first time our children are exposed to addictive substances matters more than whether the pot shop sits 150 m or 300 m from their school.

Few parents understand how much influence they have on their teenagers’ lives and choices. Did you ever marvel at how quickly teenagers learn musical instruments? Or languages? Or sports? Or video games? Our teenagers are always learning. I can no longer count the number of times parents have told me with resignation that teenagers have to rebel so there’s no point trying to stop it. Teenagers have to become individuals, and while they often do it in contrast to their parents’ identity, it doesn’t have to be in opposition to it. As a parent, you can choose to be your teenagers’ foil or their sounding board.

Teenagers are wired for love and relationships. If we are not there — physically or emotionally — to provide the unconditional regard they crave, they will find it elsewhere. There is no option where our teenagers don’t attach: if we leave the spot empty, they will attach to peers or to whatever else fills the void. Behind a prickly exterior and off-putting manners, they yearn for connection. Even more: they yearn for connection with us. They struggle with the difference between agreeing and understanding because they crave our approval, not because they look down on it. 

Mental illness aside — a topic and I am not knowledgeable or experienced enough to tackle —  all the little things we do from birth to show our children that we care add up to a relationship that can withstand the onslaught of drugs, alcohol, and risky behaviours our children are exposed to in school and in the media.

I can’t promise that my children will never engage in risky behaviour. Some already have. But the best I can hope for is that when they feel the pangs of discomfort, when they have doubts, when they want to challenge the orthodoxy of their peer group, they will know that they can turn to their parents for comfort and guidance. That they will trust enough to give us a chance to fill that hole, to love them back to balance. Because in the end, when given the choice between unconditional love and some artificial make-believe, the real thing is what we all yearn for.