The warnings were dire. The legalization of cannabis, opponents said, would encourage kids to smoke pot more, cause an undeterred rash of drug-impaired driving, and lead this country into much deeper drug problems.
This was just last year, in the debate on the bill to legalize cannabis, when a chorus of critics told us this country would be changed dramatically. Rosemarie Falk, the Conservative MP for the Saskatchewan riding of Battlefords-Lloydminster, warned it “would have a profound impact on our Canadian society.”
That didn’t happen.
“It’s a little bit like this generation’s Y2K,” said Bill Blair, Minister of Organized Crime Reduction, who was the Liberal government’s point man on legalization. “Everyone was waiting for planes to fall out of the sky and for the lights to go out.”
He’s right. Last Wednesday marked six months since legalization – a social revolution that was not so revolutionary. On Saturday, 4/20 events across the country were perhaps slightly more like celebrations than protests. There was a big party in Vancouver. As usual.
Remarkably, this hot-button issue that Canadian politicians dodged for decades left few marks on national politics.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals didn’t suffer. Nor did they gain. Polls taken before legalization showed most Canadians were in favour, or ambivalent. Polls since haven’t shown any reward for Mr. Trudeau for following through.
There have been plenty of headlines about glitches – the shortage of legal weed, notably, and the fact that legal pot has only replaced about 20 per cent of the black market. Conservative Senator Leo Housakos cited that on Saturday when he tweeted legalization was “another Trudeau failed experiment.”
But six months on, legalization has been remarkably successful.
Most important is the madness it stopped – the arrest of roughly 40,000 to 50,000 Canadians a year for possession of cannabis.
It was a law that was arbitrarily and unequally enforced. Most middle-class Canadians didn’t worry about smoking pot in their home, but police were more likely to be present near lower-income people in apartment blocks, noted University of Toronto criminologist Akwasi Owusu-Bempah. Access to Information requests filed by Vice News unearthed statistics: an Indigenous person in Regina was nine times more likely to be arrested for possession than a white person; a black person in Halifax five times more likely than a white counterpart.
Getting rid of all that was a success. And there was no disaster.
There has been no sign of a significant change in consumption habits, Mr. Blair noted, although admittedly it is early days.
The loud police warnings about drug-impaired driving were overblown. There is still no easy-to-apply test for cannabis intoxication, but there has been a rapid buildup in officers trained to recognize drug use. There was no massive uptick in drug-impaired driving, probably because cannabis consumption didn’t start with legalization.
Fears that U.S. border agents would be stopping Canadians wholesale to ask about cannabis use turned out to be overblown. Just after legalization, border agents in North Dakota quizzed residents of nearby Estevan, Sask., about their pot use, but Estevan Mayor Roy Ludwig said in an e-mail that he hasn’t heard of any incidents lately.
There are real issues, of course. The biggest problem is still that legal cannabis remains relatively scarce and makes up only a fifth of the market. Black-market dealers are still in business.
That’s in large part because of government caution. Provinces were slow to put together retail networks. Mr. Blair argues that taking 20 per cent of market business in six months is good, and he expects legal sales to account for 75 per cent of the market by the end of 2020. We’ll see. Still, the black-market share is smaller than it was. That’s not a failed experiment.
The fear that legalization will lead to teeming ranks of stoner teenagers is, it appears, misplaced. Mr. Owusu-Bempah notes that cannabis culture is shifting toward middle-aged consumers with money. Pot outlets look more like Apple stores than head shops. Over time, the counterculture connotation will decline, he argued. “It’s going to seem less cool when your mother is rubbing it on her knees,” he said.
In retrospect, it already seems clear that the only revolution in legalizing cannabis was overcoming political inertia. But Mr. Trudeau probably won’t be rewarded. And Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer probably wouldn’t dare campaign to recriminalize cannabis. There is already a new normal.
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