A friend was walking down one of Toronto's main streets the other day when his knee-high young boy said, "I smell a skunk, Daddy." Not exactly, son. Not exactly.
Legalization of marijuana is still at least a year off but it is already bringing startling and not altogether welcome changes to the streets of Canadian cities. That pungent smell wafts from doorways and parks. Dispensaries touting the beneficial effects of the demon weed are sprouting all over. Toronto's Kensington Market alone is reckoned to have around 20, though they are opening so quickly that no one seems to have an exact count.
With legalization coming but no rules yet in place, it's the wild, wild west out there. Toronto the Good is rapidly becoming Haight-Ashbury North, minus the narcs.
Getting the stuff is childishly simple. When I walked into the new dispensary around the corner, a pleasant young guy explained how it works. To buy, you have to produce a prescription. Not a prescription for marijuana, you understand. Nothing so onerous as that. Any prescription will do.
Say you suffer from shoulder pain and your doctor once wrote you a prescription for painkillers. If you can find that in your bottom drawer, bring it in and you're good to go. If you can't find it, you can bring in an old pill bottle instead. That's fine, too. Some stores will even connect their customers via video chat with a co-operative doctor or medical consultant.
Once certified, you can choose from a mind-blowing variety of cannabis-related products: cookies, candies, capsules, salad oil, even skin lotion, not to mention the more traditional smokable stuff in all the latest forms.
Snoop Dogg OG is a "dank bud" that offers users "wave after wave of racing euphoric creativity and happiness that intensifies as the high continues." Oh, and it claims to treat appetite loss, stress, depression, fatigue and mood swings. Whether it really does all of that great stuff, of course, no one can say for sure.
Authorities are understandably concerned. Except for approved medical users, marijuana is still against the law. Toronto Mayor John Tory, for one, says that "we cannot be in the position collectively where, as the law changes, people decide they're just going to have these dispensaries popping up on every street corner." That, of course, is exactly what is already happening.
Vancouver has begun ticketing unlicensed dispensaries, saying that many break the rules designed to keep them away from schools, community centres and other marijuana sellers. Toronto is considering its options, too. But police are declining to act unless they get complaints. If cities send out bylaw officers instead, as Vancouver is doing, pot shops are bound to defy them, considering how soon legalization is coming and what big money there is to be made.
All this is only the beginning. Legalization, when it comes, poses all sorts of thorny questions. Who sells the stuff? Dispensaries? Pharmacies? Corner stores? Government liquor stores? Some combination of the above? It is still somehow hard to imagine Snoop Dogg on sale next to the Yellow Tail Shiraz at the local LCBO.
What rate of tax will apply? If it's taxed too much, then underground sales will flourish and drug dealers will continue to thrive.
Who tests and certifies the product for safety and rates its potency? Who decides which variety is medical and which is recreational or whether authorities should even make that distinction? For governments, the cost and complexity of regulating legal marijuana promises to be immense.
How do authorities ensure that impaired driving doesn't soar? How do they determine whether drivers have too much marijuana in their system to be safe?
Perhaps former Toronto police chief and current Liberal MP Bill Blair, who is juggling this hot potato, will sort it all out, but for the moment it's a big mess, and it's cities that are feeling it most.