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The new government of François Legault is set to make Quebec the most restrictive province in Canada for marijuana use, a cultural shift in a place traditionally viewed as the hedonism headquarters of the nation.

Quebec already plans to forbid growing pot at home, and is one of only two provinces to do so.

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Now, the newly elected Coalition Avenir Québec government is promising to bring in a provincewide ban on cannabis use in public places and a hike in the consumption age to 21, the highest in Canada.

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With legalization only a week away across the country, it signals a change for a province traditionally known for its laissez-faire ways. For years, college students from Ontario have poured into Quebec at spring break to enjoy its looser liquor laws and lower drinking age. Under the new Legault government, Quebec youth may have to head to Ontario for their high.

“It’s pretty ironic,” said Jean-Sébastien Fallu, a researcher on drug addiction at the University of Montreal who studies cannabis. “On some moral questions, the Québécois are more permissive. On questions of drugs, they’re more conservative. Cannabis has been demonized.”

An employee displays cannabis buds at Hexo Corp's facilities in Gatineau, Que., Sept. 26, 2018.

CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

Quebec plans to control sales of legal marijuana through state-run outlets, starting with 20 and moving up to 150. The CAQ, which is opposed to the legalization of cannabis, criticized that number: “There will be even more [outlets] than there are St-Hubert restaurants in Quebec,” the party said in a statement last year, referring to Quebec’s best-known chicken chain.

Opinion polls suggest Quebeckers have more conservative attitudes than the rest of Canada when it comes to marijuana.

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An Environics Analytics survey in July found that 39 per cent of Quebeckers supported legalization compared with 53 per cent of Canadians outside the province. Cannabis use had lower rates of social acceptance in Quebec than in the rest of Canada – 32 per cent against 46 per cent.

Quebec was the only province where tobacco is judged more socially acceptable than cannabis.

Specialists have been scratching their heads to understand why Quebeckers, with their liberal social attitudes and legendary joie de vivre, have been reticent about embracing the coming marijuana revolution.

Some trace the resistance to the violence associated with Quebec’s biker gangs and their war for control of the drug trade. Others say it’s a leftover legacy of the Catholic Church.

“Not everything about morality from the Church was rejected,” Prof. Fallu said. “When it comes to sex, fine. But drugs, no.”

Cannabis legalization may cause more worry in Quebec than elsewhere because the drug is simply less visible in day-to-day life on the streets. While medical marijuana storefronts proliferate on the streets of Toronto and Vancouver, Montreal is estimated to have a handful. Police quickly shut down a string of cannabis shops opened in 2016 by activist Marc Emery.

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“Dispensaries have been part of everyday life [outside Quebec], so people have been able to realize that the world doesn’t end every day because cannabis is readily available,” said Caroline Lavoie, a consultant specialized in cannabis and director of corporate affairs at Neptune Wellness Solutions Inc. “In Quebec, there is still a lot of fear as to what’s going to happen Oct. 17.”

Serge Brochu, a criminologist and scientific director of an addiction research institute in Montreal, says the contrast between Montreal and Vancouver is striking, both through the number of cannabis dispensaries and the visible presence of drug use in Vancouver’s downtown Eastside.

“I think the visibility of drug users in British Columbia has had the effect of normalizing the connection to drugs,” the professor emeritus at the University of Montreal said. “They’ve proceeded with a de facto decriminalization, so legalization may just seem like a formality. In Quebec, [legalization] may be seen as a major change because consumption is less visible in public.”

The cannabis industry is small in Quebec compared with other provinces, so fewer people’s livelihoods are linked to it. Only nine companies are licensed as growers in Quebec, compared with 65 in Ontario and 25 in British Columbia, according to Health Canada.

Quebec’s physician professional order has also been conservative in its regulations for prescribing marijuana, relaxing its directives only last month. Today, there are far fewer patients using medical marijuana in Quebec: only 9,700 registered patients compared with more than 143,000 in Ontario, according to Health Canada.

Meanwhile, the public in the province has been “bombarded” with news reports about the health effects of cannabis, said Alain Giguère, of the polling firm CROP. His firm found in a poll that only one Quebecker in 10 said they had used cannabis in the previous year. For Canadians outside Quebec, it was one in six.

“Quebeckers are more permissive on issues related to personal expression and the pursuit of pleasure, but not to the detriment of their health,” Mr Giguère said. “There is really a perception that we are playing with potential health problems.”

Members of the newly elected CAQ government said last week that the party would push ahead with its promise to hike the legal consumption age to 21 even if it will be tough to adopt it in time for the Oct. 17 legalization roll-out. (Most provinces, including Ontario, have set the minimum age to 19. The defeated government of Philippe Couillard had put it at 18).

The CAQ says that it based its decision on studies showing cannabis can harm brain development among users under 25.

When Quebec’s new age limit comes through, it means youth in the province will be able to vote, drink and buy cigarettes at 18, but not acquire a product that will be legal in Canada. Just call it the pot paradox in Canada’s distinct society.

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Quebec premier-designate Francois Legault says he plans to raise the legal age for consuming marijuana in the province to 21 from 18. Legault also says he is a “pragmatic guy” when it comes to working with other governments. The Canadian Press
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