Weed all about it
The high expectations for the Trudeau majority
Just over a week ago, Canadians handed Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party a surprise majority government, putting a concrete end to nearly a decade of Stephen Harper’s rule. It was one of the greatest political comebacks in Canadian history, and the party’s gain of 148 seats is the largest in our electoral history.
Trudeau floated into office on a bed of significant spending promises, and has promised a deficit to back them up. Nevertheless, while much has been made about new spending in a Trudeau government, less attention has been put on the new streams of revenue the Liberals have promised to introduce, one of the most lucrative being the regulation and taxation of marijuana.
Marijuana was the first step in the slow, calculated rebuilding of a Liberal Party in shambles after the 2011 election. It started in January 2012 during a biennial policy convention in Montreal, when 77 per cent of its members voted to make the legalization and regulation of marijuana party policy. When Trudeau won the nomination in 2013, the Liberal leader’s admission to smoking pot “about five or six times in my life” (woah) equally captivated the media spotlight.
In this sense, it would seem that longtime advocates for legal cannabis would have a major political ally for the first time in the Liberals. Nevertheless, Trudeau has little enthusiasm to tie his party to the existing culture of marijuana activism. After all, these people were treated as criminals under Harper, and even previous Liberal governments.
Jodie Emery, wife of Canada’s “Prince of Pot” Marc Emery, even tried to run for the Liberal nomination in Vancouver East, and despite touting an open nomination process for candidates, the party quickly rejected her bid. While Conservative attack ads would suggest Trudeau would scheme with these people, our next Prime Minister has echoed our last one in some concerning ways on pot. Trudeau voted for Bill C-15 in 2009, a bill that would have imposed mandatory minimum sentences for cannabis possession and dealing. He was also an opponent of the party’s initial shift to legalization in 2012. Despite the policy playing well overall for the Liberals, the new government’s actual strategy for legalizing weed is hazy at best.
This is a crucial issue because the illegal cannabis industry in BC alone is worth more than $6 billion, which is more than BC’s forestry industry. Bringing this well-established illegal industry out of the shadows will be a tremendous undertaking. Yes, there are now precedents south of the border, but a state like Colorado is one thing. How does the world’s second largest country regulate weed for a population of over 35 million people? Will the legal marijuana industry be provincially-run like alcohol and tobacco? Will we see that truly apocalyptic future where people can buy pot in corner stores like Stephen Harper warned? Or will we see the establishment of government-run LCBO-type stores (MCBO?) with specialty ‘vintages’ sections for the true cannabis connoisseurs? Let’s investigate some questions in detail:
Provincial or Federal?
While marijuana has been legalized in the states of Colorado, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia, there have still been hundreds of citations for using the drug in federal parks, even if they are in states where cannabis has been legalized. The current law prohibiting recreational cannabis is a federal law, as is the law that allows for medical marijuana. Nevertheless, while Trudeau can pull the plug on federal law, does the regulatory process then move on to the provinces?
If the decision is given to the provinces, than we may see differing forms of implementation. British Columbia produces roughly 40 per cent of Canada’s illegal cannabis, and has already started the process of regulating dispensaries. However other provinces such as Ontario and the Maritimes are well behind, and it will take time for them to catch up.
The smoking age may also differ from province to province as it currently does. Just like we see 18-year-olds currently make the traditional pilgrimage to Montreal to buy a 2-4 at the grocery store, we will likely see young stoners also flocking to Québec to get their product.
How will pot be grown?
Currently, the federal government has licensed medical marijuana supply to a tightly-regulated group of private companies to grow the drug. The current medical cannabis industry has been valued by the Financial Post at approximately $80 million to $100 million, and it is predicted that a regulated industry would start off with a market value of at least $5 billion.
The Conservative government has prevented medicinal patients from growing their own supply and have orchestrated a tediously slow rollout of the system. What’s of more concern to cannabis activists however is its current restriction to investors with deep pockets. Cigarette companies, already experienced with the practice of processing and rolling tobacco, will undoubtedly want to jump at the chance of getting into the marijuana business.
In the state of Washington, the system is more attuned to the needs of small businesses. There are three types of licenses that people can purchase: marijuana producer, processor and retailer. According to the law you cannot hold a retailer license if you have the first two. The license application fees cost a modest $266 and a renewal fee of $1,062.
Growing marijuana for personal use is also allowed in Colorado in an enclosed private space to a maximum of six plants, with three to be allowed in the flowering stage. Of course, given that we have so much land in Canada that isn’t being constantly watched, having such a law would be much more difficult to enforce.
How will pot be sold?
In early September, the newspaper reported on Melanheadz, a dispensary at Broadview and Danforth that was shut down for selling marijuana to the public for recreational use since last winter. While its closure made headlines in the stoner community in Toronto, these private dispensaries have existed in Vancouver for years. The problem being that while some recreational dispensaries are run by legitimate medicinal activists who ask for medicinal ID, others have more sinister connections to gang activity such as the Hell’s Angels.
An entirely government-run system of weed dispensaries is possible, but will be costly to implement and will have to compete directly with already well-established networks. The solution we’ve seen currently in British Columbia involves a licensing system for private dispensaries, a way to both ensure regulation across the board and create incentive for small businesses to invest and employ people in legitimate cannabis establishments.
A recent report in the Globe and Mail found that more than 98 unique cafés and dispensaries like Melanheadz are currently operating in Vancouver, a sharp increase from 14 since 2012. The commonality of dispensaries led the city to establish “a special licence category for ‘marijuana-related’ businesses, including dispensaries.” The system would see an end to expensive raid operations but introduce community consultation for new dispensaries, distance restrictions regarding their proximity to schools and community centres and an annual licensing fee of $30,000.
Where can you smoke pot?
Plenty of people who use marijuana fantasize about a future where you can light up a fat joint and walk down Yonge Street without having to worry about police. But is that a reasonable expectation during Trudeau’s tenure?
Unfortunately, stoners should expect that the social stigmas that surround marijuana, and smoking in general, will continue. The anti-smoking lobby has already pushed for restrictions on cigarette smoking with immense (and some would say excessive) success. Although cannabis is not as deadly as tobacco, we would expect the respective governments to enforce the same laws with smoking cannabis as they would with tobacco.
In Colorado, it is still technically illegal to smoke marijuana in public areas. People caught puffing a joint in downtown Denver may be given a citation, largely depending on how much they are disturbing the peace. In other words, smoking a spliff in public is handled the same way as drinking a mickey or bottle of wine. You can have it on you, but if you pop off the cap and take a hit, you’re risking a ticket.
Much like the current culture, which thrives in alleyways and parks, cannabis smokers will likely have to remain discreet when smoking in public.
Can I smoke pot and drive?
This is, of course, one of the most controversial areas surrounding legalized weed. In Canada, the legal limit of 0.05 is enforced for intoxicated driving under the influence of alcohol, but finding an accurate measurement for someone using marijuana has proven to be more difficult.
Several studies have shown that casual, occasional weed smokers can become severely impaired when they are high behind the wheel. Yet, daily smokers show negligible difference between being sober and ‘impaired.’
The legal limits in Colorado and Washington states are currently enforced with blood tests, with the limit set at 5 nanograms per milliliter of blood. This is already controversial law since marijuana can stay in the blood system for long periods of time after its effects have worn off. Officers are allowed to test drivers at their own discretion, and refusal to take a blood test is currently handled the same way as refusing a breathalyzer sample.