On Tuesday, Parliament adopted a bill that ends the prohibition of recreational pot use in Canada. It’s a done deal. There’s no going back.
No, the new law won’t come into force until Oct. 17. The date now shimmers on the horizon for weed smokers across the country, and in the meantime possession of non-medical weed remains illegal.
But this is a big moment nonetheless. Canada has become just the second country to approve the nationwide legalization of marijuana, after Uruguay. We are more than 10 times Uruguay’s size: This is a major experiment in social policy that the world will be watching.
Canadians will be watching closely, too. The Liberals were elected in 2015 on a promise to do what they have just done; the law hews closely to the longstanding Liberal vision of a stringently regulated legal pot regime. And yet there remains an air of suspense about how this will play out.
The atmospherics of legal pot will be odd enough: your neighbour going to his job at the pot plant in a hazmat suit; people brazenly smoking joints on the street; government stores peddling fistfuls of Hindu Kush and Maui Wowie.
How the culture adapts to this strange new world will be fascinating; how users react will be pivotal. The Trudeau government has made eradicating the black market for weed and keeping the drug away from kids the most important goals of legalization. It’s far from clear that either of those things are achievable.
Not for want of trying, mind you. This is as tough-minded and frankly conservative a drug legalization scheme as it’s possible to imagine. Canadians should not be under the impression that “legalization” means no one will ever go to jail again for crimes related to cannabis.
On the contrary. Anyone over 18 caught selling black market pot, or distributing more than 30 grams of legal dried pot or its equivalent, or cultivating more than four plants in their home, could face up to 14 years in prison. Likewise anyone caught providing minors with the drug. Selling weed without a license or to kids will be a serious criminal offence.
And yet it’s not hard to imagine these criminal sanctions being about as effective as those we currently have in place. Which is to say, not very effective at all.
The government’s hope is that consumers will help squeeze out the black market by opting to buy legal weed from licensed stores.
But every existing recreational user already has a “guy” – sometimes one who delivers to their door with an array of products, from cookies to vape pens. These dealers will do everything they can to undercut the legal regime, with its tax-inflated prices and clunky retail apparatus.
Meanwhile, it will be illegal for most high-school students to buy pot from licensed outlets. They remain a large, likely permanent black market; about a fifth of Canadians between 15 and 19 are at least occasional weed users, according to a 2013 federal survey.
That’s more than 450,000 potential customers. Maybe legalization will drive down adolescent pot use, as it appears to have done in Colorado, but then again maybe it won’t.
Much depends on the provinces, who have properly been given wide latitude to determine how legalization will look within their borders. They will set rules on who can sell weed and how (online dispensing schemes look to vary widely), what the legal buying age will be (the federal minimum is 18 but provinces can raise it), and where adults are allowed to toke up, among other variables.
The main reason there are so many lingering questions about legalization’s rollout, of course, is that Canada is on the global vanguard here. That is to the government’s credit.
Remember: The prohibition of marijuana has been a failure around the world. Even if the new regime does not work quite as planned, success or failure should be measured against the broken system that came before it: one that sent thousands of people to prison for possessing a substance no more harmful than alcohol, utterly failed to keep that substance away from people who wanted it, children included, and provided a massive source of profit to violent criminal networks.
The Liberals, and now the country, are embarking on something different – something flawed and not always coherent, yes, but also well-meaning and bold.
Again: Canadians, and the world, will be watching closely.