Other countries that have already blazed the trail can teach Canada (and Toronto) a lot about the pot pitfalls to avoid and inevitable political blowback that’s sure to follow legalization
Cannabis enthusiasts can breathe easier now that legalization is (almost) here. But what’s already been a long strange trip toward the legalization of recreational cannabis is about to get weirder. Canada isn’t just celebrating the freeing of the weed, we’re building an entire marijuana industry. Other places that have already blazed this trail have lessons to teach us about what to expect, pitfalls to avoid and how to handle the inevitable political blowback.
1. Gotta keep it separated
Author Javier Hasse, who has been studying and reporting on cannabis legislation in South America, believes Canada can learn from Uruguay’s mistakes. The South American nation, the first in the world to legalize recreational use of marijuana, failed to keep its recreational and medical supply systems separate. When shortages in the supply chain occurred, medpot users suffered.
“Medical uses were disregarded at first,” says Hasse.
Only as legalization evolved did the government start handing out licences for medical-only growers, as well as licences to make derivatives like oils to meet the demand.
New cannabis regulations released last week suggest Canada will be taking some steps to try to prevent supply shortages from affecting medical marijuana patients. The regs include licences for micro growing and processing licences.
But a planned excise tax on marijuana will hit both recreational and medical users in Canada, where, in most cases, medical marijuana is not covered by extended health benefit plans.
2. Blame it on the blunt
Toronto is already a tourist-friendly destination, but expect the numbers to increase dramatically when recreational marijuana is legally available.
This might seem like a no-lose scenario, but even cannabis capitals like Amsterdam and Barcelona have had to deal with citizens upset about the increase in cannabis tourists that has accompanied relaxed reefer laws.
In Amsterdam, conservative politicians have been able to pull back marijuana laws by appealing to citizens’ disdain for tourists. In 2011, the city moved to ban cannabis cafés from selling marijuana to tourists. Pot shops near schools are also being shutdown. (The city has also banned all Airbnb rentals.)
In Barcelona, where anti-tourist protests were all the rage last summer, citizens groups are claiming the influx of pot tourists has made their neighbourhoods unsafe and uninviting.
Toronto should take note. While municipal politicians won’t be able to repeal federal laws, they can make things more challenging within city limits.
3. Navigating the many shades of grey
Spain legalized the cultivation of marijuana and citizens are allowed to grow their own plants for personal use. But the sale of marijuana is still prohibited.
As a result, private cannabis clubs in the country operate in a murky, legal grey area, similar to Toronto’s dispensaries.
Hundreds of such clubs exist, with as many as 300 reportedly operating in Barcelona alone, even while the legality of the clubs continue to be debated in Spain’s highest courts.
Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals announced a zero-tolerance policy on dispensaries when it revealed plans to turn the sale of recreational weed over to a government monopoly run by the LCBO.
But dispensaries continue to proliferate despite police crackdowns. All of that may be up in smoke under incoming Premier Doug Ford, who floated privatization of weed sales on the campaign trail but quickly backtracked after his police friends and other law-and-order types whispered into his ear about how that may not be such a good idea.
The future is almost here, but for the dozens of dispensaries already out there, it remains hazy.
4. Black market redux
Justin Trudeau has stated his motivation for legalizing marijuana is to take it out of the hands of minors and the illegal market. But that’s not what happened in Colorado, one of the first U.S. states to legalize the sale of recreational weed.
There, the illegal market in marijuana continues to thrive. This is partly due to marijuana growers taking their product out of state. But consumers also prefer the lower prices of illegal market weed.
Even medical marijuana users in Canada who have access to legally grown medicinal flower sometimes choose to go with what is available on the street or in dispensaries. (See point number three.) Despite the advances in quality made by licensed producers, there are conveniences afforded by the illegal market that the legal options cannot provide. These include ease of access as well as the ability to receive price breaks when purchasing larger quantities.
The bad news: should the feds feel the need to take greater action against the illegal market, as has happened in other jurisdictions, the result would be stricter laws for consumers and more regulation for the legal industry.
5. Dubious cannabis claims
Last fall, the U.S.-based Center for the Study of Addiction looked into the effects of legalization in the U.S. and concluded in its report that marijuana use did not rise with legalization.
“Medical and recreational marijuana policies did not have any significant association with increased marijuana use,” the study states, noting changing attitudes in the U.S. toward legalization.
However, facts have not stopped people from blaming a perceived rise in marijuana use for all of society’s ills. As we are seeing in the U.S., the number of faulty assumptions people will draw from legalization of marijuana is unlimited. If we see a decrease in alcohol sales, bar owners will blame legal marijuana. Increase in crime? Marijuana will be blamed. Decrease in crime? Yep, that too will be associated with recreational marijuana. Any changes we see in the city at all will be correlated with legalized marijuana.
A U.S. study released in February noted an increase in pedestrian deaths in most states with legal recreational marijuana. Can recreational marijuana be blamed for pedestrian deaths? People will have the statistics to claim this.
6. Recognizing the economic power of flower
Marijuana in Canada has already gotten big. The value of the Canadian market is already in the billions and will only grow under legalization. Our dollar’s value will increasingly be tied to a burgeoning marijuana industry.
Can it replace our Petro Loonie? If Canada becomes as invested in promoting our marijuana industry as we have our oil industry, the value of our dollar has nowhere to go but higher.
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