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With legal recreational pot, Canada leads way into uncharted territory

Why We Wrote This

Legalization of recreational marijuana is a big step for any country, but it’s perhaps that much bigger a step for Canada, which typically has not challenged global mores, like that against drug use, so directly.

Chris Wattie/Reuters
A sign warns travelers against carrying cannabis at the Ottawa International Airport. Canada moved to legalize recreational use of marijuana nationwide beginning Oct. 17.

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As recreational marijuana becomes legal there on Oct. 17, Canada has moved to the forefront of global drug policy. After nearly 100 years of signing laws prohibiting cannabis, in line with international conventions on drugs, Canada has become the largest industrialized nation to embrace the opposite path. Polling shows the nation is ready for it, with three-quarters saying they support the move. But behind the hype, Canada finds itself in an unfamiliar place. Canadians are wondering if legalization will become a model from which to draw lessons about taxation and public health, or if Canada has moved too fast. Many agree that the country is outside its comfort zone. Canada is “a G7 country, a moderate country,... maybe known more as a cautious follower of an already well-tested trend elsewhere,” says independent Sen. Tony Dean, who sponsored Bill C-45, known as the Cannabis Act, “[and now it’s] leading the way.”

Canada’s capital city is known for being sleepy, sometimes stodgy. “The city fun forgot” is a familiar crack. Counterfactual as that may be, Ottawa is still not exactly used to being on the cutting edge.

But cutting edge is exactly where it finds itself, after Canada’s Senate voted to legalize the recreational use of cannabis nationwide, which comes into force on Oct. 17.

In doing so Canada has moved to the forefront of global drug policy. In open breach of the United Nations conventions on drugs, it has clearly stated that in principle, it does not believe that prohibition of marijuana serves the public good, after nearly 100 years of signing laws to the contrary. The stakes are high, bringing more momentum to the drug reform movement, in an era in which the public’s opinion about marijuana is increasingly out of step with the global policies their leaders embrace.

Polling shows the nation is ready for it, with three-quarters saying they support Canada’s move to become the first major industrialized nation to legalize a cannabis market. And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was elected into office with a campaign promise to do so.

And yet behind the hype, Canada finds itself in an unfamiliar place. Underneath the broad support are many questions. Canadians are wondering if legalization will become a model from which to draw lessons about taxation and public health, or if Canada has moved too fast. Many agree that Canada is outside its comfort zone.

“We’ve just witnessed a very historic vote that ends 90 years of prohibition,” said independent Sen. Tony Dean, who sponsored Bill C-45, known as the Cannabis Act, in the Senate when the vote passed in June. On the cusp of the law going into effect, he notes the responsibility that implies for Canada. “You’ve got a G7 country, a moderate country, one that sort of sits in the center of the pack and seems to be happy being there, not exactly a policy leader, maybe known more as a cautious follower of an already well-tested trend elsewhere, leading the way.”

A new direction on marijuana

This is considered a huge moment for drug reformists, who for years have been fighting against the dominating mantra of the “war on drugs.”

Carlos Osorio/Reuters
Students Michal Marcinkiewicz and Carson Otto measure the light in the marijuana lab at the new Commercial Cannabis Production Program at Niagara College in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario, on Oct. 9.

“All eyes are set on Canada right now,” says Hannah Hetzer, senior international policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance in New York.

Canada is not the first to legislate and regulate a recreational marijuana market. That was Uruguay back in 2013. But the South American nation was quieter in its efforts and so tiny that it’s been easier to dismiss as a one-off. Nine American states and Washington, D.C., have also established recreational marijuana markets, with North Dakota and Michigan voting on recreational legalization as well in November midterms. (Marijuana remains illegal at the US federal level, however.)

And in December, when incoming Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador takes office, Mexico could see a radical change in its drug policies. He campaigned on an end to the drug violence that has taken tens of thousands of lives in the past decade, since Mexico joined forces with the US to stamp out drug traffickers. If Mexico were to move forward, that would mean that marijuana would be legal on at least the local level in a stretch spanning the entire west coast of North America, from the Arctic Circle to the state of Chiapas.

While laws would forbid its movement across borders, it’s a powerful symbol for the direction the world is heading. Taken together, it makes it harder to ignore at the UN, says Ms. Hetzer. “It’s less tenable to maintain conventions that prohibit something that more and more countries might be moving in the direction of,” she says.

With its explicit breach of drug treaties, Canada has angered many countries at the UN like Russia, which sits in the zero-tolerance camp. And it’s opened a new front for critics of legalized marijuana such as Kevin Sabet, a former drug-control policy official in the Obama administration who testified in front of the Canadian parliament. As the president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, he says the mainstreaming of marijuana in society is not inevitable.

“I think that the support for legalization ... is very soft,” he says. He points to the state of Massachusetts, where a majority voted for legalization but a majority of municipalities have barred retail stores, at least temporarily. “A lot of people, frankly a lot of Canadians but also Americans, inadvertently mean decriminalization not legalization,” he says. “They really just don’t want people to go to prison for pot or be stigmatized for it. It is very different than what’s actually happening.”

Too much, too soon?

On a crisp fall Sunday morning in Ottawa, the store Weeds is bustling. It’s one of several illegal pot shops to have sprouted up in the capital that has been quasi-tolerated. Tim Nelson, a longtime customer, says he believes in principle that legalization is the right way to go – putting him at odds with those who think like Mr. Sabet in the US.

But the two do converge on some points. He says he is mature enough to use marijuana but worries that kids will start wanting it more. And he wonders if Canada has moved forward too quickly. “I think we should have decriminalized first, and then moved to legalize,” he says.

Those kinds of mixed feelings appear in polling. There is clear majority support for C-45, and many Canadians are eager to create a legal model that generates tax revenue and jobs growth instead of fueling an underground market.

Yet a DART Insight poll in June showed that a majority (53 percent) of Canadians also say they are scared of the impact marijuana could have on their communities. Some of the uncertainty is over logistics, as provinces establish new rules about where cannabis can be sold or where it can be smoked. Some concern is longer term, though. Canadians wonder whether legalization will achieve the goals the government laid out: getting it out of the hands of Canadian teens, who according to a UNICEF report in 2013 were the highest users among 29 developed countries surveyed, and stamping out the black market. They worry that Canada will have to contend with big corporate money behind cannabis, after long-fought battles to control tobacco and alcohol advertising.

Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and one of the leading drug policy experts in Canada, says mixed feelings are normal, given all of the airing that the “war on drugs” has gotten over the decades. “I think change is hard when you’ve been doing something for 100 years one way, and somebody comes along and says, ‘Well look, we could do it a different way,’” he says.

Key to success is public education, including at the health ministry, which has had to revamp its messaging on marijuana. Canada has already led the way on patient advocacy and harm reduction in drug policy. Today it draws lessons from its nationwide regulation of medical marijuana in place since 2001. It has put harm reduction at the center of its strategies bringing Canada more in line with the European approach. Dr. MacPherson pioneered the “four pillar” approach centered on public health for Vancouver based on a much earlier Swiss model. “It’s the idea that people are going to keep using drugs whether we like it or not,” he says. “We need to figure out a comprehensive approach to respond to that.” He believes the logic behind cannabis regulation should be applied to some extent to other substances.

There has been some frustration on the part of activists that the attention on marijuana now is tying up resources while Canada, like the US, experiences an acute opioid overdose crisis, says Ann Fordham, executive director of the Britain-based International Drug Policy Consortium. Many activists in Canada, and beyond, argue that decriminalization applied across the board fits alongside a legal cannabis market.

No one expects that to happen any time soon in Canada though. “From a global perspective, Canada has a lot of skin in the game, they are forging ahead with cannabis regulation,” says Ms. Fordham. “And then also for the same administration to move forward with a decriminalization agenda, I think they are feeling a bit overexposed on the drugs issue.”

‘Prohibition hasn’t worked’

Canada has faced some threats from the US over its marijuana policies especially over border control. Earlier the US Customs and Border protection said that Canadians who work or invest in the industry could face a lifetime ban to the US when attempting to cross the border, though last week they dialed back the threat.

On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September, the US put out a “Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem,” which both Canada and Mexico signed – disappointing many reformists who say it was just more of the hard-line status quo.

Patricia Erickson, professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Toronto, sees legalization in Canada as a response to a “phenomenon of normalization” over the past 40 years across all ages, classes, and occupations. In fact she sees US states as having paved the way toward reform in Canada.

Still, Canada might be under pressure to assert its stance on narcotics overall, perhaps behind its support of the US document at the UN. “Was it because in the global sense we don’t want to look too radical on drug policies, that we are signatories to treaties which we are apparently breaching with this legalization?” she asks.

Senator Dean says that as the world is watching, legislation in Canada has nothing to do with glorifying marijuana use or going “soft” on drugs. Instead it’s a simple recognition that the government decided to codify: He notes that too many Canadian youths use marijuana; the social harms of criminalization are clear (minorities are over-represented in cannabis convictions, for example); meanwhile the illicit market flourishes.

“The fact is prohibition hasn’t worked,” he says. “In a way we were collectively, Canada was looking the other way. Somehow it was easier to look the other way. And we had a government that for whatever reason ... chose to make an effort to confront it head on, to confront the harms of it head on, and to make an effort to regulate it."

He adds: “That’s a big shift but it’s arguably better than allowing prohibition to continue and doing nothing about it.”

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