Weed is going to be legal in Canada, and soon. In some sense, this was already a foregone conclusion, but what that looked like specifically, was not. As Bill C-45 wormed its way through Senate committees, reports, and multiple readings, the final shape of what legalization will look like in 2018 began to take shape.
And while the core concept of legalization—that adults should be able to smoke weed in the privacy of their own homes, and to their heart’s content—remains pretty much constant, it’s also not the only question at play. For cannabis consumers in Canada, the devil is in the details… and when it comes to the details, there are still plenty of question marks and aspects of the bill that activists plan to continue pushing for.
In truth, the bill is an imperfect one. It’s a compromise between the notion that cannabis should be treated like alcohol and tobacco and the notion that cannabis legalizations should be (excuse the expression) taken low and slow. Here are the current biggest areas of concern.
Arguably the biggest hole in the country’s cannabis legalization effort is around edibles. They’re not banned outright, but the country effectively put a pin in the discussion for a year or so. According to Health Canada, the regulation and sale of edibles, “would be authorized no later than 12 months following the coming into force of the proposed legislation.”
Effectively, though, this will shut out a huge segment of the market: government data released in April found that 28% of cannabis users used edibles, making it the second-most popular way to get high.
While the government pressing pause on the world of chocolates and mints and sodas will give them time to write the regulations (and help enterprising newspaper columnists like Maureen Dowd avoid, uh, harrowing experiences with edibles), it also shuts people out of the system. Those who are wary of smoking or find the price of vaporizers prohibitive may find edibles to be a more (literally) digestible way to dip a toe in the cannabis market.
While the country’s federal legislation, Bill C-45, doesn’t regulate where you can and can’t smoke weed, it does grant the provinces the right to do so. In most provinces, you’ll be severely limited as to where you can smoke pot — mostly in your own home.
For example, there are unlikely to be any legal places that resemble Dutch coffee shops where you can purchase and consume your weed in the same location. Same goes for bars and clubs. While some provinces (namely British Columbia and Alberta) are allowing cannabis to be smoked alongside tobacco and e-cigarettes, most of the other provinces say you need to be in a private dwelling.
Ontario, the country’s largest province, is toying with the idea of allowing consumption spaces of some sort. “I don’t know why anybody would be offended by the notion of creating these spaces if they are offended by the concept of cannabis use,” Trina Fraser, an Ottawa-based lawyer, told The Leaf News in January, “because it will actually remove it from places where they would be exposed to it.”
As the legalization bill has approached its final vote in the Senate, Conservative senators have mounted a last-minute charge against the home growing provisions, including forcing a vote on an amendment that would have banned it outright. That effort failed.
But while home growing of cannabis is allowed under C-45 — the bill grants you the right to grow as many as four plants — it is not a right that is enjoyed equally across the country. In Quebec and Manitoba, home growing will remain illegal, and in several other provinces, landlords will have the ability to bar you from growing pot plants.
Questions have been raised, and not yet answered, about whether or not that is constitutional. There has been talk that a constitutional challenge might be imminent, with Quebec officials accusing the feds of actually encouraging such a legal challenge.
A hot-button issue in the late stages of the legalization push is whether or not the government will grant amnesty to the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who have a criminal record for simple cannabis consumption.
“People convicted of marijuana possession shouldn’t have to wait so long,” writes the editorial board of the Winnipeg Free Press, who publish The Leaf News. “After legalization, Ottawa should move promptly to free these citizens from the shackles of convictions. When it’s no longer a crime, they should no longer be criminals.”
For activists, this issue is one with a racial dimension, as Black and Indigenous Canadians are statistically more likely to be saddled with criminal charges for simple possession. “We know that there’s a racialized aspect to the war on drugs, to cannabis enforcement,” Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto, told me last month.
“We’re recognizing that the war on drugs has failed, and that it’s had a detrimental impact on our society generally, and certain segments of our society in particular.”
Owusu-Bempah was part of a coalition of academics and lawyers behind the Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty, an awareness and lobbying campaign that was urging the government to grant amnesty. While the government’s pot czar Bill Blair (himself a former police chief) has indicated that the government is exploring amnesty, it has yet to materialize in any way.
In Canada, we’re mostly used to buying our vices from the government: booze is mostly only available from the Ontario government-run LCBO or The Beer Store, for instance. So it’s not much of a surprise to see pot receive the same treatment. The problem, though, is that governments who have spent decades busting pot dealers haven’t learned a ton about how to actually be one, and are moving slowly when it comes to making buying easier.
In Ontario, with a population of over 13 million, there will only be 40 stores to start with. And even that is looking unlikely: after the announcement of the first four locations for the Ontario Cannabis Stores, public backlash over one of the locations in Toronto being too close to a public school sent most cities back to the drawing board.
In Ottawa, the entire process seems to have stalled completely, with even the mayor claiming to be out of the loop. Quebec, Canada’s second largest province (and when it comes to alcohol its most permissive), there will only be 20 stores — one store for every 400,000 residents.
This, too, is highly unequal across the country: Alberta, a province with a historical tendency towards freedom from government regulations, expects to dole out 250 private dispensary licenses in its first year.
Given that the government has been making a lot of noise about its desire to stamp out the black market for weed once and for all, it’s a curious approach: if the government expects people to stop buying from their dealer, wouldn’t it make sense to have more stores, not fewer?
An eleventh-hour twist to the legalization story has been the amendment banning promotional items like shirts, hats, and more.
The amendment, moved by Sen. Judith Seidman, would impose a complete ban on all cannabis advertising. She said that since partial bans have been shown to be ineffective when it comes to tobacco advertising, it made sense to impose a full-ban when it comes to cannabis.
“My amendment fixes that loophole, closes what I could call the backdoor on marijuana marketing,” she told the Canadian Press. “We have a unique opportunity with a new product to do the right thing; we should learn from our past mistakes.”
That amendment still needs to be approved by the House of Commons, but it has already prompted eye-rolling from observers. A semi-joking #FreeTheSwag movement has started on Twitter, with prominent cannabis industry players mocking the ban.
It is not so much a problem with the bill. Nobody needs to wear a pot-leaf t-shirt, after all (and in truth the edicts of good taste would recommend against it), The problem is illustrative of the mentality of those legalizing it. Among conservative politicians, a reefer-madness-esque prudency has emerged, wherein selling pot is okay but doing so openly is less acceptable; as one user put it online, it will be legal to use the drug but illegal to wear the t-shirt.