The cannabis community held tight to a victory last week in Canada’s federal election, when the Liberals stepped out with a majority government. Legalization of cannabis is part of their official platform and now that they hold a majority, it can’t come soon enough. Some are still skeptical – others have promised legalization before Justin Trudeau.
It could mean some big things for everyone. Will dispensaries finally be regulated federally? Will licensed producers be at the forefront of an ‘inevitable’ recreational market? What about home growing?
While I think we will see legalization happen in the next few years, it will happen a lot more conservatively than we expect. We know that cannabis should be removed from the umbrella of criminal justice, but I’m hesitant to say the final model will emerge the way we want it to. The Liberal Party is a little more center than the party I remember from my youth, but they do portray themselves as somewhat fiscally conservative, socially progressive, and seem to have stepped away from the “pro-big government” of the past. It was after all, the senior Trudeau, who advocated for a more activist Canadian government to help solve social and economic issues, and often talked about a more compassionate and equal society.
For legalization to be successful the Liberals need to remember that if they overtax cannabis, and don’t undercut ‘street prices’, an underground market will still thrive.
When we hear of compassion, some remain hopeful that compassion clubs, or dispensaries, will finally be acknowledged under a regulatory scheme. Of course, what is more likely to happen is that licensed producers will be allowed to dispense on-site (a trend of implementing the best parts of the dispensary model into the MMPR while refusing to include existing, long-standing compassion clubs in the regulatory scheme). They would effectively become like compassion clubs but with proper regulatory oversight. So long grassroots activism, too bad for those who have risked their liberty for 20 years, but hey, thank you for paving the way.
I don’t mean to be cheeky, but the truth about a free market model means licensed producers will be at the front gates, regardless of the drug policy experts who have urged us to consider a variety of models for public health outcomes—CAMH, for example, advocated for government control over the sale and distribution of cannabis. I know government control over anything feels like a dirty word, but using lessons from other regulated substances is how policy should be informed, created and refined.
When we look at the social ills caused by alcohol, the provincial control model in most of our provinces is known internationally for its harm reduction precisely because it has a hand in restricting access and availability. Cannabis, of course, is not alcohol, but for those who aren’t in the know, using the existing regulation of other substances is the best way to transfer understanding of what legalization could look like. My only hope is that the eventual regulating bodies take a broader look at public health outcomes, and we fight against a purely commercial cannabis market. We should acknowledge Canada’s distinct history when it comes to reform, cannabis policy, and medical cannabis. This history will have a hand in shaping something different than what we see in places like Colorado or Washington State.
Many drug policy experts have warned against having private entrepreneurs from the MMPR as the loudest voice at the policy table, much like what happened in Colorado, and the difficulty of establishing an independent legalization regime that focuses primarily on public health, going as far to call anything other than an MMPR-type legalization scheme “unlikely”. The natural next step would seem to follow the medical model.
This is troubling because research shows that in cases like alcohol and tobacco, these entrepreneurs push for more access, and more availability, shifting focus away from public health outcomes. But at the same time, we should acknowledge their work over the last year following rigorous standards, and producing quality medical grade cannabis. Who the ‘experts’ are has definitely expanded, and I do not want to discount this work, but rather urge us all to consider a variety of options and use a long history of evidence to make the decision that is right for Canadians.
Further, for legalization to be successful the Liberals need to remember that if they overtax cannabis and don’t undercut ‘street prices’, an underground market will still thrive. We need to think about access and young people, and how this will inform whatever regulation develops. As it currently stands, cannabis is the easiest substance for youth to obtain (easier that tobacco and alcohol). This is no doubt tied to the regulation of tobacco and alcohol, because last time I checked, the black market certainly doesn’t I.D.
What about home growing? We’ve heard Trudeau talk about it as something that should be afforded to Canadians. It makes sense to look to established markets, like Colorado, where the world has not ended, and the state is still standing (I mean, thriving).
But, we can’t forget that legalization of cannabis is not compatible with the existing 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which, alongside other things, limits cannabis to medical or scientific use. Then again, no one has ever explained to me what the UN would do to stop it, if anything. What is even more exciting is that the UN General Assembly has been planning a review of the drug control system. The United Nations General Assembly Special Session, or you may heard of it being referred to as “UNGASS”, is happening April of next year in New York City. You can imagine that cannabis is top of the list for UNGASS 2016.
This is a result of many countries voicing their displeasure with the current international regulation around drug policy. Think of it this way: the last time they met in 1998, the mandate was simply the “total elimination of drugs around the world” – sounds a bit archaic, no? Many countries around the world seem to think so, but the truth is when we are talking about drug policy reform, the drug control system in the UN is part of that discussion.
Just because the Liberals have won does not mean the work is done, but merely that phase one has been unlocked. While many drug policy experts I’ve spoken to remain skeptical, we need to continue the work to ensure Trudeau fulfills his promise to Canadians.