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What Canada’s cannabis legalisation reveals about the middle-class approach to drugs

Dispensaries already exist around Canada, and they are remarkably similar to your average coffee shop.

By Sanjana Varghese

“We had a few good friends around for a dinner party. Someone lit a joint and passed it around, and I had a puff.” A common story, perhaps – recreational cannabis usage has steadily increased over the last 30 years, almost uniformly throughout the world, which has brought its own host of legal complications and public health consequences. That particular anecdote, however, is from current Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has spoken candidly about his usage of cannabis during the time he was a sitting MP.

When he was on the campaign trail in 2015, Trudeau made legalising recreational marijuana usage a part of his platform. As soon as the Liberal Party formed a majority government, he took the first step towards this by commissioning a taskforce on cannabis. Since then, Bill C-45, which proposes to make cannabis for recreational purposes legal, passed a third reading in the House of Commons in the autumn of 2017. Trudeau has indicated he wants to stick to the timeline of recreational marijuana being legalised by 1 July 2018 (Canada Day).

Canadians will be able to possess up to 30g of cannabis, although the details of how it would be sold, or by whom, are largely up to the regulation of individual provinces, many of which will operate a substantial trial period before opening up for general commercial usage. However, the federal government is predicting at least $4bn in revenue, and cannabis will be subject to an excise tax. In Ontario, it is likely that cannabis will be available from a limited amount of carefully-monitored dispensaries, similar to the sale of alcohol, while other states are likely to have widespread commercial cannabis capacities across various stores.

A revolution? Not quite. Dispensaries already exist around Canada, particularly in urban centres. They are remarkably similar to your average coffee shop, although those who enter have to sign a form stating their legal age and name. A friend who lives in Toronto described them as streetwear stores, “but with weed”. The cleanliness of the dispensaries – along with their often hip clientele – makes it easy to forget that they’re technically operating in a legal grey zone, something which ended up costing dispensary owners in Toronto dearly when many were raided and shut down in early 2017.

A host of other changes had to take place in order to make legalising recreational cannabis usage possible. While initial usage of cannabis after it was banned (in 1923 in Canada) remained generally quite low, by the 1960s, there were over 25,000 cases in one year. This may have had something to do with changes in policing, although there are similar trends worldwide. Perhaps the fact that those charged included many middle-class adults might explain why, by 1969, the Le Dain Commission was looking into the medical uses of cannabis. Yet while this commission found that there was significant reason to remove the criminal penalty for cannabis possession, little headway was made until the legalisation of medicinal cannabis in 2001.

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Opinion polls showed that the public has always been ahead of the curve. Support for legalised marijuana increasing every year since 1996. Canadians are among the largest consumers of cannabis in the world, with around 49.4 per cent of men and 35.8 per cent of women stating (in 2012) that they have used cannabis in their lifetime, although there is considerably less data on frequency of usage. 

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Steve Moore, of drug policy thinktank Volteface, recently hosted a sold-out UK cannabis event, Cannabis Europa, held at the Barbican in London. Nevertheless, he thinks the UK fundamentally has a different relationship to cannabis. “In the UK, there’s a greater association between cannabis use and misuse, and that’s to do with the potency of the strains here. A lot of people who are opposed to cannabis reform aren’t users, but are intimately involved with people who are.”

Moore praises Trudeau for changing the way the cannabis debate is framed internationally. “He’s really pushed forward on the idea of responsible adult use – he’s kind of championed that,” he suggests. The plans to legalise cannabis include harsh sentences for those caught selling to minors. “Obviously, the fact that it’s been legal for medicinal purposes for nearly two decades now, that’s hugely changed the perception.”

Friends who live in Canada, particularly in Toronto, where I’m from, seem to agree that almost everyone smokes weed. “A lot of my friends smoke with their parents,” says a friend who is currently at university, although she adds that there may be a class element at play here. Middle class users of marijuana were what sparked the Le Dain Commission in 1969 (under Trudeau’s father, former PM Pierre Trudeau), and are probably the most likely to benefit from legalisation, being able to afford government-sanctioned prices as well as the comfort of a trendy neighbourhood store. “I’d still say that there’s no one really that’s surprised or shocked that people are smoking pot.”

Inevitably, there is a disconnect between the exciting, profitable future that recreational marijuana seems to hold in Canada, and its past. Legalising recreational marijuana may be achieved, but there are a whole host of problems associated with cannabis usage which are unlikely to disappear overnight.

As countless activists and scholars have pointed out, there still remain scores of people who are incarcerated for cannabis-related offences, as well as those who have offences on their permanent records. As is often the case with drug sentencing laws, these often skewer along class and race based lines. So far, there has been no suggestion of amnesty for those who have been incarcerated for cannabis-related offences. Even if there was, the way that drug-related offences are classified means that there is often little to no information about whether an offence is related to marijuana or not, so erasing criminal records would be a lengthy, manual process.

Julian Fantino, formerly the chief of the Toronto police service and a Conservative politician, declared his complete opposition to marijuana legalisation in 2015, likening it to mass murder. He has not only since reversed his stance, but even – controversially – opened a business connecting patients with medical marijuana. So have other former members of the Conservative Party, who passed stringent anti-marijuana laws and proposed mandatory minimum sentences. Such stories are likely to be echoed around the country as proposed changes roll out. Ironically, under current (and proposed laws), those who have been convicted on drug-related offences are generally unable to participate in the cannabis sector, despite their wealth of expertise and personal investment, because they are likely to be denied the security clearance necessary to work for a licensed provider. 

There are other kinds of hurdles too. The pricing of cannabis remains a bugbear, as government agencies want to put off new users, but don’t want black markets to maintain their illicit monopoly. For commercial vendors, there will be strict regulations around the advertisement and marketing of cannabis. This means no celebrity endorsements, nothing that suggests glamour or fear or a positive or negative emotion. Vendors are already becoming creative, with many using social media to connect with customers.

Under a partner bill, C-46, there are new provisions for driving while high, including a mandatory minimum sentence of 14 years for incidents involving injuries or death, but there are almost no methods by which to determine how much THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) someone has consumed, nor is there a widely agreed standard about how much is too much. Finally, as is often the case with many kinds of nationwide legislation, indigenous groups in Canada have expressed doubts about the substance of C-45, highlighting that there was insufficient consultation with indigenous populations about the development of the bill. They argue that indigenous communities should maintain the right to decide which substances are legal in their own communities, given the varying history of substance usage in indigenous communities and the rest of the population. 

All these decisions, many of which are taken at the provincial level, are likely to cause a variety of cannabis-related consequences, and the public health implications, in the short term and long term remain difficult to accurately predict. For the thousands of people with a criminal record, or even currently incarcerated for possession of pot, Trudeau’s commitment to “move forward in a thoughtful way” may not suffice. The PM may be banking on the idea of “responsible adult usage” in order to push through with legalising recreational cannabis, but unless he is also able to keep control of the policy side-effects, the idea of a Canada where cannabis is normalised may remain a pipe dream.