Three years ago, Canada legalized cannabis – the first major country to do so. At first, it seemed like a momentous decision.
The novelty, however, soon faded. Legal weed blurred into the background of daily life – just one more thing you could chose to buy, or not. For the vast majority of Canadians – four out of five people generally do not use cannabis at all – the only noticeable change was the many pot storefronts that have proliferated in cities across the country.
The policy reversal dates back to the summer of 2013. At an event in British Columbia, Justin Trudeau, then the new leader of Parliament’s third party, said he favoured legalization – “tax and regulate,” as he put it. He had previously been wary of even decriminalization, the half-step of removing criminal sanctions but not making the drug legal for sale, like alcohol. After his come-from-behind win in the 2015 election, the idea moved toward reality.
The early days of legalization, after Oct. 17, 2018, were marked by the struggles of a nascent business, and the uncertainty of regulators. At first, there were too few retailers and, compared with the black market, prices were too high. Today, it’s the opposite. Ontario added 140 stores in late 2020 alone; one wonders how they’ll all manage to stay in business. Meanwhile, legal prices have fallen, as supply has surged. Cannabis does grow like a weed, after all.
The goals of the Cannabis Act were threefold: to keep young Canadians away from the drug; to displace the illegal market and its attendant crime; and to get simple possession cases out of the criminal justice system.
Before legalization, Statscan estimated that 4.7-million Canadians 15 years of age and older had used cannabis at least once in the previous three months – about one in six people. That rose to 6.2-million reported users, or one in five people, in the most recent survey.
The biggest apparent increases were among people aged 35 to 44, and those 65 years of age and older. However, the pre-legalization figures may have been an understatement – given that Canadians were being asked to admit to something that was then illegal. Younger people are those most likely to use – pre-legalization, Statscan estimated that 33 per cent of those aged 15 to 24 had used cannabis in the past three months. But use doesn’t appear to have risen since then. Statscan’s latest estimate is that use among the youngest has fallen slightly, to 31 per cent.
On the second front – curbing the illicit market – things look promising. Legal cannabis eclipsed illicit bud in mid-2020 and the lead widened thereafter, according to Statscan. Legal sales so far have topped $6-billion, and industry has paid $1-billion in excise taxes. A recent Statscan survey finds that 68 per cent of users bought legal cannabis, up from 47 per cent soon after legalization. Statscan says the regulated market is now “better equipped” to compete on “price, convenience and selection.”
The third goal, and perhaps the most important, was all about making something stop happening – namely arrests for possession of small amounts. Such policing made no sense, and it diverted criminal justice resources from bigger issues. Yet in the decade before legalization, there were about 50,000 cannabis possession cases every year. Charges were laid disproportionately. In Toronto, between 2013 and 2017, Black people were 8.8 per cent of the population yet accounted for 38 per cent of cannabis charges.
Canada didn’t go to pot with legal weed. And the positives of cannabis legalization can inform thinking on the potential decriminalization of other drugs. To combat the opioids overdose crisis, there are widespread calls for decriminalization, recognizing drugs as primarily a health issue. Removing criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of other drugs would be similar to the moves on weed – a radical idea that, once in practice, would hopefully go unnoticed by most Canadians, while having a quietly positive impact.
The legalization of cannabis put Canada the fore of the change in global drug policy. It ended a decades-long, failed battle against a minor drug, a fight whose costs were borne by hundreds of thousands of Canadians who were not criminals. As with alcohol, cannabis comes with health issues; as with alcohol, legalization, regulation and education is better than prohibition. And for most Canadians, the anniversary of the shift from illegal to legal pot goes unnoticed and unmarked. No news is good news.
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