Back in the day, when Canadians bought their weed from a mustachioed guy in a '72 Camaro in a back parking lot, there was no quality control. You forked over 10 bucks and hoped you didn't get a dime bag of schwag in return.
Today, marijuana has gone mainstream and upscale. It's sold in dispensaries that could be mistaken for tea shops, by dudes and dudettes in Rasta tams, who can lecture earnestly about the comparative benefits of strains named Triple Diesel and Golden Goat while they weigh purchases on a digital scale.
Yet despite fancy digs and botanical baristas, most dispensaries have about the same quality control as the guy in the '72 Camaro.
For consumers, that's the take-home message from a Globe and Mail investigation that tested pot purchased in dispensaries for chemicals, moulds and bacteria, as well as for their level of cannabinoids such as THC and CBN, the active and so-called medicinal ingredients of marijuana.
Beyond that, the articles serve as a reminder that, in the current environment, what is legal, tolerable and desirable is utterly unclear, and that lack of clarity serves no one.
On paper, purchasing and possessing cannabis (and byproducts) is still illegal in Canada – unless you have a prescription for medical marijuana. That "medicine" is supposed to be purchased from one of 31 licensed producers, who courier pot to your home; or you can grow your own.
There are currently 53,000 registered medical marijuana "patients," but there are at least 10 times as many regular pot smokers across the country.
They can buy on the streets, as has been done traditionally, or turn to dispensaries, of which there are more than 200 across the country.
These are essentially glorified head shops, where you can purchase cannabis with or without a prescription, depending on the retailer.
Technically, these shops are illegal. As a result, they can't get their product tested by licensed labs, even if they wanted to. That doesn't help anyone.
Where dispensaries get their product from is one of the most uncomfortable and most-avoided questions. Some comes from small, unlicensed producers but much of it is purchased from organized crime, from the biker gangs and the like who control the estimated $7-billion a year industry.
In its 2015 Speech from the Throne, the new Liberal government promised to legalize and regulate marijuana sales. Legislation will be tabled in the spring of 2017, and a task force has been set up to create a framework for doing so.
Criminal prohibition of marijuana hasn't worked, so legalization makes sense. But regulation is essential to minimize harm for individuals.
That means, among other things, that there needs to be consumer protection standards. When you purchase some Purple Zombie or Durban Poison, you should have the assurance that it's not tainted by pesticides or mould. You should also have a sense of its potency, or THC content, just as you know the alcohol content of beer and spirits.
In other words, cannabis products (dried, oils, edibles) should be treated like the other commonly used "recreational" drug, alcohol. That is going to require some bureaucracy, but that's the price to be paid for legalization.
If cannabis is going to be sold as medicine, as a prescription drug, then much stricter rules and standards must be applied. For one thing, dosages have to be clear. There is some evidence (and much anecdote) that marijuana has therapeutic benefits, but it makes no sense to have a separate regimen for prescribing and dispensing it. Either it's a prescription drug, or it isn't.
For the most part, we should dispense with the fiction that marijuana is medicinal. We should also not take it for granted that dispensaries – stand-alone pot-selling shops – are the best place for legal marijuana to be sold.
If people want to get stoned, they can get stoned. But they should also have, in return for the taxes they will pay, the assurance that their weed is legit.
Right now, it's caveat stoner.