Canada is finally nearing the end of dopey pot prohibition

Cannabis | by Gregory Beatty

Sometime on or before April 20 the federal Liberals will unveil their long-awaited legislation to make recreational cannabis legal. The target date for legalization: July 1, 2018.

About time, some of you are perhaps thinking. But Craig Jones, the Kingston, Ontario-based executive director of the cannabis advocacy group NORML Canada, is prepared to cut the government some slack.

“My impression is the Liberals looked at this through the lens of how can we undue a policy error from the early 20th century,” he says.

The error — the idea that states, through the criminal justice system, could socially engineer the preferences of their citizens — backfired spectacularly. Governments gave up on alcohol prohibition in the 1930s, recognizing that the booze ban didn’t stop people from drinking. It just pushed them into a black market dominated by bloodthirsty gangs.

Fuelled by propaganda of gargantuan “reefer madness” proportions, governments stuck with cannabis prohibition far longer.

But now, the end is high. I mean, nigh.

“Intelligent policy makers understood this as far back as the Le Dain Commission in the early 1970s,” says Jones. “They began to wake up to the fact people were not responding, and they didn’t have the appetite to implement policies to effectively suppress demand, so they threw all their resources into suppressing supply. That just pushed up the risk premium for black market suppliers and made provision of these substances extremely lucrative.

“The Liberals are trying to extricate themselves from this failed policy, and they are doing it in such a way that other countries will be able to retrace their steps and perhaps come to the same conclusion.”

To gather input on what legislative framework should govern cannabis, the Liberals conducted country-wide consultations with stakeholders in such areas as law enforcement, health care and cannabis advocacy. Two points that the last group repeatedly made is that people should have the right to grow cannabis for personal use, and that while cannabis is often seen as a potential cash cow for governments, prices couldn’t be set too high or the black market would continue to flourish.

Once cannabis is legalized, Canadians will be able to grow up to four plants for personal use. It’s not as generous as other jurisdictions that have legalized, where six is the magic number. But home plants will be permitted.

“There are two reasons why they are permitting it,” says Jones. “Number one is you can’t enforce against it. Cannabis culture long precedes prohibition. Cannabis sharing and selling among friends cannot be suppressed legally. It’s too costly and intrusive.”

The second reason is tied to medical use. Currently, tens of thousands of Canadians are legally licensed to use cannabis as medicine. Through research, it’s been discovered that different strains are effective in treating different conditions.

“Individuals who are dealing with rare conditions are going to want to pursue the strains that are effective for them,” says Jones. “That’s a legitimate expression of their democratic liberties.”

Jones believes the Liberals also got the message on price.

“If government really wants to take a bite out of the black market it will have to create a supply that undercuts the black market. The challenge with that is per hour of [buzz], cannabis is the cheapest substance known to humankind. You can grow it in your backyard, or in a room in your house. It grows anywhere, and is very easy to cultivate.”

Provincial Party Poopers?

Similar to alcohol, the feds will leave most of the regulation in provincial hands. Ottawa will license producers to ensure a safe and secure supply, but how cannabis is distributed and sold will be up to the provinces. Provinces will also be able to set a legal age above the federal minimum of 18, and add taxes of their own.

Right now, there’s a huge disparity in attitudes toward cannabis among provinces. B.C., for instance, is notoriously liberal, while Quebec and Ontario are more hard-ass.

As for Saskatchewan? at SARM’s recent convention, Justice Minister Gordon Wyant said he had “grave” concerns about legalizing cannabis.

Given the Wall government’s religious/conservative bent, it’s easy to envision them being on the hard-ass end of the cannabis spectrum.

But provinces face the same conundrum as the feds, says Jones.

“The provinces will have to strike a balance between the legitimate market and black market too. If they want to incentivize the black market they will go in one direction. If they want to undercut the black market they will go in another. My instinct is they will want to undercut the black market as much as possible because they want those revenues.”

Revenues? Sounds like something a certain deficit-saddled province can’t afford to turn its nose up at.

Treaties & Trump

One reason cannabis legalization is so complicated is that Canada is a signatory on three international treaties that champion the failed policy idea that cannabis use can be curbed through criminal sanctions.

Like Canada’s Controlled Drugs & Substances Act, these treaties lump cannabis in with dangerous and addictive drugs such as heroin, cocaine, crystal meth and more. Countries such as Portugal, the Netherlands and Uruguay already operate outside that framework, and Canada is poised to join them.

South of the border, the Trump administration has done some sabre-rattling on the issue.

But Jones doesn’t see potential blow-back from the U.S. posing a problem.

“[U.S. Attorney General] Jeff Sessions may be aware Canada is on the verge of legalization,” says Jones. “But he may not even know what street Canada is on.

“He knows where California is though,” Jones says.

“[In November], California voted to legalize, and he knows, if he’s smart, that California is not going to roll over for the Trump agenda. They will take it all the way to the Supreme Court. So in Ottawa, they are calculating that the Trump administration is going to have its hands full managing California before it looks outside its own borders.”

Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Alaska have already legalized recreational cannabis, and Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada also approved recreational use in “reeferendums” in November.

So yeah, it’s pretty much a done deal.

Unfortunately, until legalization actually occurs, Canadians are still at risk of being busted for possession and trafficking. That’s not a trivial matter either, as each year over 50,000 Canadians run afoul of the law for using and selling cannabis. Dispensaries are also regularly raided by police.

Once legislation is introduced and a timeline set, saner heads may prevail.

But it’s not automatic, says Jones.

“The police are an institution, so it’s difficult to ask them to do anything other than uphold the law,” says Jones.

“The problem is, it’s going to be selective and random because, frankly, police have more important things to do. They know that, but for optics they have to go out and raid some dispensaries from time to time. That’s unfortunate, because many times the owners and workers will go before a judge and the judge will say ‘Well, there’s no criminal record here, no criminal intent. Yes, the law is still on the books, but is this the best use of police and court resources?’”

Good question, that. ❧