By Trevor Busch
A spectre is haunting Canada — the spectre of cannabis.
Truly the doomsday prophecy of end times that the conservative right has feared since time immemorial, the siren call of the ‘demon weed’ has apparently infected enough of us laughably-inexcusable liberal types to raise up that dirtiest of words amongst drug czars, policy makers and enforcement agents the world over: Legalization.
Most of us that might have cast a ballot in the direction of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party in 2015 are probably already aware the federal government is planning on legalizing the sale of recreational marijuana through legislation to be tabled early on in 2017. This will represent a sea of change in drug policy in Canada that is unrivaled in scope and complexity since the ending of alcohol prohibition in most provinces in the mid-1920’s.
Whatever side of the issue one stands, it’s apparent legalization is about to become a reality for Canadians from coast to coast.
Examining this reality for a moment, it would be hard to not acknowledge that many of the long-standing arguments against marijuana use or cannabis legalization are either hopelessly outdated or simply untruthful to begin with. The drug now has proven advantages for medical users for a variety of ailments, and legalization offers government a tempting tax revenue stream that was previously non-existent.
Successive claims over the years that cannabis use causes insanity, withdrawal from reality, anti-social behaviour, and hypersexuality, have largely been disproven through the testimonials of millions of surreptitious users — who we suspect can probably tell us more about the short and long-term effects of cannabis use on humans than a handful of poorly-funded researchers over the past few decades.
A federal committee tasked with conceiving Canada’s path forward to legalization made a number of important recommendations last month, such as setting a minimum age for sale of 18.
Some policy groups had been leveling pressure for Ottawa to set the age as high as 25 (due to legitimate concerns regarding cannabis’ effect on brain development in youth), setting a limit on levels of THC (the psychoactive chemical in cannabis responsible for the ‘high’), and suggesting ideas about pricing.
A remarkable example of competency in policy formulation (not always an area of recent success for Ottawa’s army of bureaucrats), the report’s recommendations strike a fair balance. It attempts to come closer to the reality of Canada’s situation with regard to marijuana prohibition rather than conceiving a policy-driven approach that might not work. For instance, setting the age threshold at 18 may not please prohibitionists who insist the drug can still affect a brain’s development into early adulthood, but the reality — although mostly unacknowledged — is that people who are 18 or older are going to get what they want by hook or by crook, thus potentially reinvigorating a black market that legalization is largely designed to eliminate.
Similarly, arguments to limit THC levels in legally-sold pot would likely have the same result. Instead, Ottawa may look to tax more heavily THC-laden weed by charging a higher price, but it needs to be careful here as well. Making legal weed too expensive will also potentially further enhance the already-entrenched black market in Canada. So walking a fine line would be an understatement.
Thankfully Canadian legislators have been able to peruse the mistakes and problems emanating from two U.S. states that blazed the proverbial weed trail to legalization — Colorado and Washington. Issues that have arisen in those states since legalization that Canada hopes to sidestep include an increase in impaired driving related to cannabis use, some of the problems surrounding marketing the substance, and packaging for edibles that could potentially make the substance attractive for unsuspecting children.
Our neighbours to the south are a bizarre example where State supremacy appears to actually be gaining the upper hand in the pot legalization debate, a stark departure from previous decades that saw the long arm of the federal government launch a War on Drugs in America which had weed squarely in its sights.
While federally in the U.S., pot is still a prohibited substance, in Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, pot enthusiasts can now light up without fear of legal repercussions — and so far the federal government has shown little willingness to challenge these states over their legislation. But all of that could be coming to an abrupt end in 2017.
With the ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency, many activists and even legislators are warning that a federal crackdown on legalized marijuana could be looming for recalcitrant states that are unwilling to be manhandled back into the federal fold by an army of billy-club wielding DEA agents sporting pins bearing the slogan “Let’s Make America Great Again”.
If that is the case, it could end up being a major miss-step for The Donald. Decentralized state power in the U.S. federal system is an idea as old as the Declaration of Independence, and most U.S. states and their people take a second amendment viewpoint when the federal government attempts to start dictating policy. The legislation allowing cannabis legalization in all of these states have been approved by a majority of the citizens living there. What is the stereotypical American citizen’s general response when he/she learns the federal government is attempting to usurp their state’s right to draft its own legislation? Get ready for battle, Trump.
Many people tend to forget the American Civil War was as much about a state’s right to control its own destiny as it was about emancipating black slaves.
Here in Canada, we should have no such worries. The legislators who created Canada’s federal system in 1867 — a scant two years after the conclusion of the American Civil War, which influenced them greatly — ensured most powers rest with the federal government rather than the provinces. That later included marijuana prohibition and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
In Canada, attitudes toward the “demon weed” have been slow to change, but there has been much progress in the past 10 years to soften once-rigid attitudes and misperceptions. Generations now exist that have either tried weed, are occasional users or habitual ones. Marijuana users come from all walks of life, not just lower-class under-achievers whose minds have become cottage cheese. Odds are most children and young adults have been exposed to the substance at some point in their lives. From all of this, many have come to recognize — users and non-users alike — that cannabis is hardly the evil communist soul-destroying menace to life and liberty that governments have made it out to be for so long.
Characteristically, this can be a fascinating watershed moment for many who have drifted into the cannabis culture over the years, who realize that if their government — at least as they see it — has been lying to them about the effects of marijuana, what else have they been telling them that we should no longer believe, about anything? It should illustrate for government how the danger of using pseudo-science propaganda and outright falsehoods to advance an agenda can eventually come to undermine public trust in government when that information is later proven to be incorrect or purposely misleading.
While attitudes in the general public are still slow to change, many in the medical profession are still moving like molasses when it comes to attitudes toward medical marijuana. Many individuals with chronic pain for various medical conditions have expressed frustration with professionals who refuse to grant a prescription for medical marijuana, but are perfectly willing to hand out prescriptions for habit-forming opioids with serious side-effects.
As a post-mortem for cannabis prohibition, like alcohol before it, the ultimate wonder in the near future is likely to be why we let it go on for as long as we did as a society. Purely an attempt to legislate morality from its very inception, alcohol prohibition in the United States was an utter and abject failure which promoted criminal elements and actually loosened the federal government’s control over the importation and production of the substance by handing it over to organized crime.
A savvy reader might note that virtually the same thing could be said about cannabis. So as we progress toward a greener future in 2017, just remember: Soon it will finally be permissible to turn on, tune in, and drop out. Oh, and last but not least — Dave’s not here, man!