One of the first customers at the cannabis store in downtown Montreal lit a joint on the sidewalk in front of the shop on Wednesday, obviously pleased that it was legal. It is for now, but the province’s incoming Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government has vowed to forbid legal purchasers from consuming it in any public place.
Quebec has been a wary partner in federal legalization. The feds said four plants grown at home was acceptable; the outgoing provincial government balked at allowing any. Head shops in Quebec have been forced to get rid of cannabis imagery and paraphernalia, including pipes and T-shirts printed with marijuana leaves. All those things were okay to sell when cannabis wasn’t legal.
The CAQ regime is taking an even harder line, pledging to raise the legal age to 21. You need to only be 18 to drink alcohol or cast a vote in Quebec.
The CAQ’s nowhere-any-time rule on public consumption will be ignored by Quebeckers who are already skilled at discrete puffing in public. The new government’s insistence on such a rule, which is opposed by mayors in Montreal and other cities, looks like a panic reaction.
Quebeckers smoke tobacco and drink alcohol at somewhat higher rates than the national averages. They seem less focused on the harms caused by these known killers, however, than by what may result from government stores selling cannabis.
How did this happen? Quebec is well-known for its easy-going attitude regarding pleasure.
Historically, the province has been stony ground for prohibition of fun-enhancing substances. In an 1898 national plebiscite on alcohol prohibition, Quebeckers voted 81 per cent against, scuttling any chance that the federal Liberals would ban booze to please the narrow national majority in favour.
After the vote, the Protestant Woman’s Christian Temperance Union resolved not to be swayed by the ignorance and limited moral intelligence of Catholic Quebeckers. The Quebec City newspaper Le Soleil replied with fury that the “Confederation will be smashed into 1,000 pieces before we submit to people who not only insult us as a race, but seek to impose upon us laws repugnant to our conception of individual liberty.”
The Catholic clergy in Quebec back then occasionally preached against alcohol, but obviously didn’t sway the vote in 1898, or in 1919, when 78 per cent of Quebeckers rejected a provincial ban. A few months later, the entire United States went dry, and Quebec’s reputation as a God-fearing place where you could have a good time was born.
Two-thirds of Quebeckers support cannabis legalization, according to recent polls. That’s a pretty robust hurrah for the conception of individual liberty defended by Le Soleil in 1898. But cannabis has a darker history in Quebec than in other parts of Canada. The marijuana trade was one of the stakes in the Biker Wars of the late 1990s. These gangland battles convulsed the province for eight years, killing over 160 and wounding many more. They also cast a shadow of violence and terror over the banal transactions that supplied ordinary folk with their cannabis.
It may be that that shadow still affects the opinions of those opposing legalized cannabis, whose views can be surprisingly moralistic. One mayor of a suburb of Montreal recently declared that no government pot shop in his town could be sited along a retail strip where ordinary shoppers might pass.
“A separate building will be constructed,” Vaudreuil-Dorion mayor Guy Pilon told the Montreal Gazette, “so that it is clear that the people who show up at the store are there for a reason.” Perhaps the town could also put up a big sign, saying “SHAME ON YOU.”
The CAQ prides itself on being sympathetic to businesses, but may find that its proposed ban on any public consumption plays poorly among owners of Montreal’s abundant rental housing. If smoking your legal pre-rolled joint on the street can draw a fine, some tenants might be tempted to light up indoors.
By the time the government is ready to make its revisions to Quebec’s cannabis legislation, however, the current cannabis panic among its rural and suburban constituents may have died down. Taxes from legalized sales in government stores will be having a calming, if not euphoric, effect on provincial finances. Like cigarettes, booze and lotteries, cannabis will pay for its new acceptability in cash.