Trudeau promised to make marijuana legal. Where’s that at?

Feature by Gregory Beatty

Instead of “Hump Day” on April 20, thousands of Canadians will celebrate “Hemp Day” through the annual 4/20 protest against pot prohibition. With the Trudeau Liberals committed to legalizing cannabis, spirits should be high.

But the fact remains that unless you’re a licensed medical user, if you possess or share marijuana at the protest, you’re breaking the law.

Bill Blair, the former Toronto police chief who’s the government’s point man on the file as parliamentary secretary to Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, made that crystal clear in a recent CBC interview.

“I think it’s really important that we continue to use the tools that are available to us to keep our communities safe,” he said. “The only control that’s currently in place is the criminal sanction and… those laws must continue to be respected and upheld across the country.”

“Nudge, nudge, wink, wink,” some of you are perhaps thinking. But each year over 22,000 Canadians are busted for pot under the Controlled Drugs & Substances Act. Just the other day in Calgary, Vancouver cannabis crusader Dana Larsen was arrested for handing out seed at a rally. That’s the bust that made headlines, but most police “collars” are among the poor and underprivileged.

Once convicted, Canadians have a criminal record which greatly complicates employment, travel and other activities. They might even face jail time — especially since the Harper Conservatives introduced mandatory minimums for some pot offenses in its 2012 omnibus crime bill.

The Liberals first step in legalizing cannabis will see Blair chair a task force composed of federal, provincial and municipal government officials, along with experts in public health, substance abuse and the police.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, no one does. Bill Blair’s committee hasn’t even been named yet,” says Blair Longley, a long-time cannabis advocate and leader of the federally registered Marijuana Party.

“But when you look at who the Liberals have appointed to lead the task force, you could hardly imagine a worse person. Blair made his career as a narc, and when he was police chief he supervised the biggest mass arrest in Canadian history when people who came out to peacefully protest the G20 were kettled with almost a thousand ending up in jail.”

Conceivably, Blair’s appointment could be a strategic move by the Liberals to short-circuit opposition to legalization. And there will be opposition, make no mistake. To prepare for the impending battle, conservative heavyweights even held a panel on cannabis at the recent Manning Conference in Ottawa.

Presenters were divided on the issue of legalization, one media report noted, and the audience was too between “grassroots social conservatives, Red Tories and libertarians — and between some younger and older conservatives.”

It’s one thing to have mixed views on cannabis at a political conference. But when that confusion extends to the legal arena it’s a much bigger problem. Under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canadians are guaranteed equal treatment under the law. But when it comes to marijuana that’s not true, says Longley.

“Vancouver and Vancouver Island, and somewhat now in Toronto, you can do all kinds of things that you can’t do in the rest of Canada,” says Longley. “Even parts of B.C. controlled by the RCMP where the politics are more conservative are still very repressive. And in Montreal, police have hounded out of existence all attempts to run medical marijuana dispensaries and vapour lounges.”

Meanwhile, south of the border, five states have legalized recreational cannabis [see sidebar]. Dozens more license its medical use — as does Canada, and over 40,000 Canadians are authorized by Health Canada to consume marijuana for medical purposes.

Seems bizarre, doesn’t it? But it’s perfectly consistent with the incredibly stupid history of cannabis prohibition.

Reefer Madness

“Hemp is the single best plant on the planet — for food, first and foremost, as hemp seeds are the best source of plant protein and oil there is, better than soybeans,” says Longley. “Hemp is also a high quality fibre — far better than cotton in not requiring fertilizer and pesticides. Then there’s its medicinal properties, and its use for recreation.

“So you have the single best plant for food, fun, fibre and medicine — and it gets transformed into ‘marijuana’ through this ‘reefer madness’ mindset that says it’s an addictive narcotic that makes you criminally insane and kills you.”

In 1894, Britain struck a commission to investigate “Indian Hemp” as cannabis was then called. It concluded that moderate use produced “no ill effects”, and that society had sustained “little injury” from hemp drugs. Yet in 1923 in Canada, the Mackenzie King-led Liberals added cannabis to a schedule of outlawed drugs that also included heroin/opium, morphine and cocaine.

“There was zero problem at the time with cannabis consumption as a psychoactive substance,” says Longley. “Nobody did it, nobody knew about it. It wasn’t until the 1960s that use exploded with the counterculture and the rate of arrests went from practically nothing to tens of thousands.”

So why did the King government act? Well, that’s a complicated question.

Alcohol prohibition had been in force since 1918, so moral purity was part of it. As well, in North America cannabis was associated with marginalized minorities (Asians in Canada, and African-Americans in the U.S.). So racism was a factor, as was concern for the delicate sensibilities of white women who might be exposed to “demon weed”.

And cannabis was demonized, says Longley.

Reefer Madness is the best-known propaganda movie, but there were almost 100 of them. And if you were to make a dramatization today of the House of Commons debates [on criminalizing cannabis] most people would find them hilarious, because they would recognize how absurd it was.”

U.S. newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst even launched one of his patented “yellow journalism” campaigns. Critics today argue that Hearst was desperate to protect his lumber holdings from competition from versatile hemp fibre.

Legalization advocates have long equated pot prohibition with alcohol prohibition. When the latter was in effect in the 1920s, criminal gangs reaped windfall riches supplying the black market. Bootlegged booze was easy to obtain, as cannabis is now for youth and adults alike, and gangs engaged in bloody turf wars that caused massive social strife.

“We’re probably headed toward a recapitulation of the alcohol story,” Longley says. “Once it was legalized again in 1933, various oligopolies developed and still exist where there’s a few big corporations that dominate the market.”

For Canadians who are casual consumers or at least pot-friendly, that probably sounds okay. But Longley is dismayed at the level of fear-mongering going on.

“Many Canadians no longer believe the big lie, so there’s been the promotion of Reefer Madness 2.0 with headlines trumpeting junk science that marijuana causes psychosis, or makes you stupid, and exaggerating the danger of driving when you have a few nanograms of THC in your blood and [comparing] it to being seriously drunk.”

Legalizing cannabis may even violate international treaties prohibiting the possession and production of narcotics and psychotropic substances, experts have warned.

Profit Motive

Researchers are still fleshing out the science around cannabis but anecdotal reports on the medical benefits for numerous illnesses and chronic conditions seem persuasive. And with a recreational market estimated at $5 billion in Canada alone, the stakes are definitely high.

Not surprisingly, corporate interests, many with ties to the medical marijuana industry that the Conservatives helped spur by curtailing the right of licensed users to grow their own medicine, are jockeying for position.

Colorado applies a 25 per cent sales tax to recreational marijuana. Then there’s the corporate take to consider. While the bud in licensed dispensaries is undoubtedly primo, the end price is double the black market.

As part of its legalization initiative, the Trudeau government has promised to crack down on anyone who sells cannabis outside the new regulatory framework. Repeal of alcohol prohibition put most bootleggers out of business, but compared to booze cannabis is incredibly easy and inexpensive to produce. So if the price of legal cannabis is set too high, a thriving black market will likely remain.

“I hope I’m wrong, but what I expect is that the Liberals are going to come up with Prohibition 2.0 where regulations will restrict access in ways that it’s still ridiculously expensive and a tiny group will make all the money,” says Longley.

Sounds like monopoly capitalism as usual. You expected something better?

Rocky Mountain High

Five U.S. states have voted in “reeferendums” to legalize recreational cannabis. Colorado and Washington State were first in 2012, and in 2014 Alaska, Oregon and District of Columbia joined them. California, Nevada, Maine and Arizona are among states holding votes this year or considering other ways to legalize it.

The five states in which recreational cannabis is legal followed different paths in setting up regulatory regimes, and some have worked better than others. Colorado is regarded as a success story.

So what’s it like?

Colorado limits the sale of cannabis to adults 21 and older. State residents can possess up to an ounce, while non-residents are limited to a quarter ounce. Residents can also grow up to six plants for their own use, and can gift up to one ounce to another adult.

Recently, an anonymous acquaintance visited the resort town of Vail, Colorado.

“A bylaw limits dispensaries to the warehouse/commercial area,” says Anonymous Acquaintance. “We didn’t notice a lot of advertisement for wares, but shops are allowed to have websites. They can display their names on the storefront too, but no window shopping.

“There were three shops in the area, and over three days we went to each,” says A.A. “You need state-issued photo ID or, in our case, a passport. It was inspected at the door, and when making a purchase.

“Overall, the experience was excellent!” says Anonymous Acquaintance. “You can’t browse like in a liquor store as everything is in glass display cases or on shelves behind the counter. But they have everything including inhalers, edibles, bongs, one-hitters, etc. The staff is knowledgeable, and able to make recommendations on strain, strength and likely effects. They know they have a good thing, and all the places were very careful to make sure proper protocol was followed.

“If we had a similar situation here, I’d absolutely be in favour!” A.A. concludes. “It was clearly well controlled and regulated to make sure no minors were involved and the proper taxes were collected.” /Gregory Beatty