And so, here we go. The recreational use of cannabis is now legal in Canada, making ours only the second country, after tiny Uruguay, to take a leap that is both epic and overblown.
Overblown because, in one critical way, nothing will change. According to Statistics Canada, 4.9 million of us consumed $5.7-billion worth of cannabis in various forms, both medical and non-medical, in 2017. Canadians don’t need a change in the law to be encouraged to use pot.
All that Oct. 17 will be for many adult users is the day they alter the way they procure and enjoy a relatively safe narcotic that may have been a part of their lives for years.
Instead of exclusively relying on an illegal dealer, they will have the option to buy legal weed produced by licensed manufacturers from either a government-owned retailer or a licensed private retailer.
Instead of having to take minor precautions when they buy illegal weed in order to avoid the minuscule risk of arrest, or having to keep an eye out for police officers as they walk down the street of a major Canadian city openly smoking a joint, they will be able to purchase, carry and enjoy cannabis without any of the anxieties they didn’t really seem to have in the first place.
But within that shift in legality – and in what amounts to the public takeover of a lucrative black-market industry – lie a number of important consequences for Canada.
The most gratifying will be the end of the tens of thousands of arrests for possession of small amounts of cannabis that people are subjected to every year.
Those arrests disproportionately targeted black and Indigenous Canadians. It is long past due that a regime that punished vulnerable people for so small a crime, while millions of others brazenly used cannabis with impunity, is finally off the books.
There will also be economic and political consequences. By becoming the first major Western country to legalize cannabis and allow its undocumented use (in Uruguay, users must provide their fingerprints in order to buy pot), Canada has positioned itself to be the leader in an industry that seems destined to grow internationally.
The industry’s potential has already created billions of dollars of value for Canadian companies that are at the forefront of cannabis production and research. A heartening number of small towns across Canada have been rejuvenated by the arrival of large-scale facilities set in abandoned factories. Jobs are coming back to places that need them badly.
Will it last? Investors are betting heavily that it will. So are travel and hospitality companies that are gearing up for an expected boost in cannabis-related tourism.
But in being so bold, Canada has also exposed itself to the animus of governments, like that of the United States, that persist in politically motivated wars against a drug that is demonstrably less harmful and dangerous than alcohol. Ottawa will need to protect the industry, and the people in it, from repercussions imposed by countries that continue to criminalize cannabis possession.
How that plays out will determine what Oct. 17 really means for Canada.
Are we a modern, mature and self-confident nation that is implementing a sensible response to the fact that cannabis is being safely consumed in large quantities by law-abiding citizens – as is the case in many other countries, the United States included?
Or have we jumped the gun; are we about to become a cute little Nordic oddity where people use cannabis as freely as they do alcohol, but which is isolated as a result of being out-of-touch with other governments' attitudes toward cannabis, however outdated those attitudes may be?
The Trudeau government has really put itself out there with this move. It is trying to be a leader on an issue that some countries may be looking for leadership on, but many others aren’t. That quintessential Liberal hubris is, to us, is the biggest risk Canada is taking this week.
It’s worth taking, though. Domestic issues – dealing with stoned drivers and cracking down on the black market, chiefly – will take care of themselves as time passes.
The essence of the moment is that a government has acknowledged the scope of cannabis use by its citizens, and the reality of its limited health risks, and pushed through a bold reform. That alone makes Oct. 17, 2018, a remarkable day.