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opinion

There have been growing pains, but early evidence shows that initial concerns about legalization haven’t materialized and the main aims of the legislation are well on their way to being achieved

Torontonians celebrate at a 'bud drop' party on the eve of cannabis legalization on Oct. 17, 2018. Canada was the second country after Uruguay to legalize the drug for recreational use.Ian Willms/Getty Images

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah is a faculty member in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. He is the director of research for Cannabis Amnesty and was a member of Health Canada’s Expert Task Force on Substance Use.

The pandemic has brought an unusual calm to downtown Toronto’s retail streetscapes, but in the past couple of years, there’s been one unmistakable sign of life: the proliferation of cannabis shops. There have been so many that two city councillors asked for a temporary moratorium on licensing, citing complaints from residents and concerns the shops will “cannibalize” main streets. Is this a sign that some of the fears around legalization have come true – that increased crime and social harm are coming from these locations? Not really.

Turns out the councillors were motivated primarily by worries that there won’t be enough variety for retail shoppers. They were also hearing from cannabis retailers themselves, who want less competition to boost profits. These are pretty minor complaints in the grand scheme of things, as we evaluate the results of Canada’s ambitious experiment to be one of the first countries in the world to legalize the drug. Overall, despite small bumps in the road, such as the temporary mismatch between supply and demand in some areas, legalization has been an overwhelming, if quiet, success since it came into effect a little more than three years ago.

It is perhaps not surprising that a move away from almost a century of cannabis prohibition raised fears among segments of the public, the policing community and lawmakers alike. Concerns about legalization ranged from the rather extreme Reefer Madness type of hysteria, to more sensible apprehensions about increasing rates of use and the dangers posed by drug-impaired drivers. Nevertheless, Justin Trudeau’s campaign promise as the then third-place party leader and subsequent policy adoption as Prime Minister were in step with both public opinion and the behaviours of Canadians. Before legalization, polls showed a majority supported such a reform, and surveys documented relatively high rates of lifetime and past-year cannabis use.

Upon taking office, Mr. Trudeau moved swiftly, appointing a task force to explore various approaches to legalization. After an expedited series of consultations and study tours, the task force tabled its final report, complete with a series of recommendations that would form the basis of Canada’s legal cannabis regime. The overarching aim is to promote public health and safety by keeping cannabis out of the hands of young people, providing access to a quality controlled supply, displacing the illegal market, and reducing the burden on both the public and justice system associated with criminalizing simple possession.

Cannabis, the early years: At top, a B.C. Cannabis Store in Kamloops gets ready to open on legalization day in 2018, and at bottom, cannabis grows at the Thrive Cannabis plant in Simcoe, Ont., this past April.Jeff Bassett/The Globe and Mail; Tara Walton/The Canadian Press

It’s hard to deny that things got off to a rather shaky start. Huge amounts of money poured into the emerging Canadian cannabis sector as investors looked for ways to cash in on the “green rush.” Licensed (and often unlicensed) cannabis companies saw their valuations skyrocket, and many used their windfalls to fund construction and acquisition sprees. Huge production facilities were built, thousands of staff were hired and tons of cannabis was grown and processed.

Nevertheless, at the time of legalization, too few Canadians had ready access to legal product as different provinces and territories took their own approaches to retail licensing and sales. Ontario, with a population of about 14 million people, allowed only 25 stores initially (the first of which opened six months after legalization), while Alberta, home to just slightly more than four million people, soon had hundreds.

Despite the availability of online sales (which lacked appeal to many already skeptical of “government weed”), potential consumers in the most populous provinces of Ontario and Quebec complained about difficulties getting their hands on legal product as supply shortages emerged. And for those who could, criticism about high prices and poor quality were common. It seemed that many of the players in Canada’s new legal industry were unable to satisfy the rather sophisticated tastes of experienced cannabis consumers, or to compete on a cost basis with illegal suppliers.

Then came the supply gluts – too much product. Finally, the high-flying cannabis stocks came back to earth as realization set in that the lofty sales and earnings projections would not quickly materialize. The shedding of jobs and shuttering of factories soon followed.

Now, data captured by Statistics Canada’s Canadian Cannabis Survey (CCS) suggest that rates of cannabis use have since settled to just above their pre-legalization levels, after a jump in the period immediately after legalization. In 2021, 25 per cent of Canadians reported using cannabis in the past year, up from 22 per cent in 2018. The increase in past-year use was greatest for 20-to-24-year-olds (49 per cent in 2021, compared with 44 per cent in 2018) and lowest for 16-to-19-year-olds (37 per cent in 2021, compared with 36 per cent in 2018). Rates of daily or almost daily use have remained steady among Canadians, while the average age initiation (first use) increased to 20.4 years in 2021 from 18.9 years in 2018.

In addition to the growing social acceptance of cannabis, the increases in use should be considered in the context of two significant developments. First was the introduction of a broader range of cannabis products in January of 2020, including edibles and beverages, that might appeal to consumers reluctant to smoke or vape. Second was the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020, which left many people out of work and locked down. Statistics Canada research suggests that stress, boredom and loneliness experienced during the pandemic contributed to increased cannabis consumption for some. (There are inherent challenges collecting data on illegal and stigmatized activities, which might influence these numbers.)

Cannabis legalization also brought with it concerns about drug-impaired driving. Advocacy groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving suggested that cannabis legalization would result in more traffic injuries and deaths, especially for young people. These concerns, too, seem not to have materialized. In fact, CCS data indicate that fewer Canadians report driving after consuming cannabis post-legalization than they did before. In 2021, 16 per cent of cannabis users said they had operated a vehicle after using cannabis in the past 12 months, down from 27 per cent in 2018. Traffic injuries seem also to have been largely unaffected. UBC researcher Russ Callaghan collected data from emergency departments in Ontario and Alberta, and concluded that there was “no evidence that legalization was associated with significant changes in emergency department traffic-injury presentations.” This is good news.

Rates of arrest for cannabis-impaired driving did, however, increase significantly in 2019. This is perhaps unsurprising given the introduction of strengthened impaired driving laws that accompanied legalization and the vast amount of law-enforcement resources and attention that was deployed to address concerns. In light of the decline in self-reported cannabis-impaired driving, the increase in arrests is likely a reflection of increased detection rather than changes in impaired-driving patterns.

A key goal of legalization was to promote public health and safety by introducing a regulated supply of cannabis and pushing out the illegal market. Given the obstacles to access and perceived quality issues mentioned above, many Canadian cannabis consumers initially appeared reluctant to ditch their illegal supply in favour of regulated products. Some commentators were critical of the seemingly slow uptake of legal sales well into 2020, perhaps believing that an almost 100-year-old illegal market would disappear overnight.

By 2019, 47 per cent of respondents to the National Cannabis Survey reported getting at least some of their cannabis from a legal source, a figure that rose to 68 per cent by 2020. Conversely, 35 per cent of consumers reported obtaining their cannabis from an illegal source in 2020, down from 51 per cent in 2018. The value of transactions for legal and illegal markets also shifted in the third quarter of 2020, with legal recreational sales ($821-million) outstripping unlicensed sales ($789-million) for the first time.

These positive trends have continued, and as the industry matures, and cannabis becomes less stigmatized, I anticipate legal cannabis taking an ever-larger piece of the pie (though just like tobacco, we’ll likely always have illegal trade).

Stability in the retail sector should also materialize. The availability of cannabis has been inconsistent across the country, with some urban centres, such as Toronto, seeing a deluge of new shops while other jurisdictions, often suburban areas, have banned such outlets entirely. But this will likely even out over time, with market forces prompting consolidation and closings of some stores while others appear in underserved areas as local regulations change and government-controlled retailers build capacity.

Another central aim of legalization was to reduce the risk and consequences of criminalization for people who use cannabis, while also reducing the burden of processing these cases through the criminal justice system.

As the most commonly used illegal substance in Canada prior to legalization, tens of thousands of Canadians (many of them young people) came into contact with the justice system each year for minor possession offences.

These contributed significantly to the multibillion-dollar price tag for enforcing our drug laws, and had tremendously negative effects on the people saddled with criminal records.

Here, we see another success story. Cannabis possession arrests averaged about 50,000 a year between 1998 and 2017, from a low of approximately 34,500 in 1998 to a high of almost 62,000 in 2011. Although fluctuating over time, these figures remained high during the tough-on-crime Stephen Harper years and began to decline after Mr. Trudeau’s election in 2015. By 2019, a year after legalization, cannabis possession arrests had dropped to 1,856, and declined further to 1,378 by 2020. (People can still be arrested for possessing unregulated cannabis, and for possession over specified limits, among other offences.)

Research I undertook with colleagues on behalf of the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction also found significant reductions in arrests for cannabis trafficking, as well as for production and cultivation. More good news.

Where the Canadian legalization story is less positive is in the area of amnesty and inclusion. Many American jurisdictions that have legalized cannabis have also automatically cleared the criminal records of people convicted of historical cannabis crimes (for example, possession offences that are no longer on the books) and introduced measures to help those negatively affected by the War on Drugs. We have been slow to move in this regard.

The most substantive action came in the form of Bill C-93, legislation intended to provide no-cost, expedited pardons for simple cannabis possession offences. Estimates of the number of people eligible for relief ranged from 10,000 to 250,00. But as of October, 2021, two years after the program was introduced, only 484 “pot pardons” had been granted. Public awareness of the program remains low and the barriers to applying too high. Because the enforcement of our drug laws has historically been targeted toward marginalized and racialized populations, it is these groups who continue to be disproportionally harmed by the negative consequences of a criminal record. They are also vastly under-represented as key players in our legal cannabis industry. If our government is serious about reconciliation and addressing inequality, this situation must change.

Overall, though, we have done rather well. Canada took a fairly restrained approach to the initial rollout of legalization, and it seems to have paid off. The sky has not fallen, use has not skyrocketed, and a steady increase in the proportion of legal sales mean public health and safety are being strengthened.

But these are still early days. Certainly, more data is needed, and close attention should be paid to developments across a range of outcomes. Nevertheless, I hope that the understated successes of cannabis legalization will prompt a fundamental rethinking of our approach to dealing with all illegal mind-altering substances. New approaches to drug policy are sorely needed.


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