As a longtime political hobbyist, I cannot help but be excited by the promised tabling of legislation in Parliament, which will end the prohibition on recreational use of cannabis in Canada.
Without question, it will have different meaning to different people. For some, it is the next step in a lifetime of social activism, and perhaps social disobedience. For others, it creates uncertainty, as medical cannabis users see their medicine move from a therapeutic product to a vice. The list of stakeholders is long, and concerns about how this new intoxicant will affect healthcare, insurance and other traditional Canadian businesses are legitimate.
That said, I see this through a different lens.
Politics have been at the forefront of my entire career. I am fascinated by watershed moments in public policy. We are about to see one. This once-in-a-lifetime event will be the end of prohibition for a product Canadians are already consuming in droves.
At the risk of being proved wrong in a few short days, I thought I would lay out a series of predictions on what will be contained in the forthcoming legislation, but with a twist. I will set my own biases aside and look specifically at the politics of the issue, using the statements made by politicians themselves as key indicators of what to expect.
In other words, I am going to dive deeper into politician speak, what do these master communicators’ key messages really mean when they speak on the topic of cannabis reform.
“Legalize, regulate, and restrict access to marijuana for recreational purposes” -Liberal Party of Canada 2015 general election
This line, often repeated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his most senior Liberal Party officials and candidates, set in motion a policy process that is the first of its kind for a G7 or G20 country. Regardless of how you personally feel about cannabis legalization, this is significant and monumental.
Notwithstanding, this line is widely misinterpreted by the Canadian population. The quote has been interpreted as creating a wild west of cannabis consumption, and unleashing an unrestricted free market that will legally allow marijuana to be sold everywhere in Canada. Grow what you want, sell it where you want, and consume it whenever and wherever you want. This seems to be the interpretation of many in the industry, as well as consumers and even some politicians who disagree with Trudeau and his team.
Students of politics see that phrase much differently. Notice how “Canadian” the commitment is. It is actually saying that the goal of the policy on recreational use is to encourage Canadians to consume less cannabis than they do now. And for those who do choose to consume it, the government wants to ensure that the product is safer than it is currently. The government actually wants to make it harder for young people to get their hands on cannabis, not easier for the population at large to consume.
Many people will be disappointed when the legislation is tabled next week, for the simple reason that they misunderstand the stated, public goals of the government.
The production model articulated by the task force report caused a significant amount of concern among cannabis advocates when the Honourable Anne McClellan’s report was released. Many in the community saw it as a “corporate cannabis” takeover of what was traditionally a community-centric approach to the plant. Students of politics, however, could have easily predicted a licensed producer (LP) approach to cannabis. The “Canadian way” is always to ensure testing and consumer safety.
The takeaway from this is not that the product currently consumed outside of the LP model is unsafe, but rather that Canada and Canadians are programmed from an early age to look to government for a seal of approval on consumer goods, consciously or unconsciously. Again, this should not have come as a surprise. Back in January 2016 Bill Blair, MP was quoted as saying:
“One of the things that we have to be concerned with is to ensure that it’s not adulterated in any way—that we have some understanding of its quality and its potency, so that if it is to be used by an adult population, that it can be done safely and in a healthy way” -Bill Blair, MP – Globe and Mail, January 12, 2016
Cannabis enthusiasts will certainly be able to grow at home for their own consumption, just like people can make their own beer, grow their own tomatoes, or pickle their own beets. But it would be naive to believe that hobbyists will be able to sell that product on the open market, just like sales of basement brew and other products cannot be on grocery shelves without significant regulatory oversight by the government.
This very issue was the subject of intense debate in the Senate in 2010 as the previous Conservative government moved a bill through Health Canada to enhance the government’s power around consumer product regulations, recalls and safety. While not cannabis-related, that debate does give us insight into the civil service’s view of itself and the role it plays in protecting Canadians.
The legislation to be tabled will leave many questions unanswered. First among these is the issue of a future retail environment. I am confident in predicting that the provinces will be given responsibility for how the citizens of their home jurisdictions will purchase cannabis, but we will not know for some time how that will look from coast-to-coast-to-coast. Many look to different alcohol sales regimes as a quick shorthand to make the predictions.
I submit that it is instructive to look to provincial politicians’ commentary to get an even better understanding of how they view the product and as a predictor of how they will legislate:
"It's early in the process. We haven't determined what a distribution model will look like, but I am assuming that most of those will have to conform to whatever requirements we put out at the end of the day. I can see many of them shutting down." - B.C Public Safety Minister, Mike Morris, in reference to current storefronts.
“It’s a balancing act, obviously, because on one hand the objective of legalizing marijuana—for the most part—is to control it and to actually make it more safe. And we are committing that we will engage with Albertans on some of those options, and [age limits] will probably be one of them. Not everyone is going to agree, but I think it’s really important that we do engage [with Albertans] because I know lots of families are concerned about safety on [marijuana].” - Alberta Premier Rachel Notley
“Ontario will advocate and develop a regime for the regulated use of recreational marijuana that will ensure we protect our youth and vulnerable, that we promote public health and safety and focus on prevention and harm reduction.” - Attorney General of Ontario, Minister Yasir Naqvi
Again, we see that politicians are approaching this issue from the point of consumer protection, safety, and the over 50 per cent of voters who are against this initiative. This tells political observers that the plan is significantly more restrictive than what activists would prefer. We can confidently predict that multiple, unregulated storefronts that are the norm in cities like Vancouver and Toronto will not be the way of the legal regime.
There is still a long, bumpy road to legalization ahead for Canadian politicians, and Canadians in general. The legislation next week is just one more step. By paying attention to what politicians say, we can interpret what they mean and make predictions for what may happen.
- Will Stewart
Will Stewart is a managing principle at Navigator.
Featured image by A Yee.