Justin Trudeau has "liberalized" Canada.

Justin Trudeau has “liberalized” Canada.

Editor’s Note:This article is the first in a series leading up to the Oct. 21 federal election which will examine Justin Trudeau’s record as Liberal leader and Prime Minister.

When Justin Trudeau ran for the Liberal leadership in 2013, he said he would liberalize Canada’s marijuana law, although he was unclear about whether that meant decriminalizing pot (technically illegal but no criminal sanction) or legalizing it (totally permitted, although perhaps regulated). Eventually the leadership candidate settled on decriminalizing the drug, although the difference may not matter much; police forces generally do not enforce pot laws when they become punishable by mere fines.

Since 2001, cannabis has been allowed for medical purposes, and the market was tightly regulated by Health Canada. That changed after Justin Trudeau was elected in 2015. The House of Commons voted to legalize marijuana in November 2017 – thereby breaking Trudeau’s leadership campaign promise to merely decriminalize the drug but the Senate passed a slightly different version of the bill allowing recreational drug use on March 22, 2018. After nearly two years of interdepartmental discussion, parliamentary debate, and negotiation with stakeholders such as police, youth advocates, health professionals, and provinces and municipalities, and after missing the opportunity to meet Trudeau’s self-imposed deadline to make pot readily available to all Canadians by July 2018, the House of Commons voted on June 18 to accept the majority of the Senate’s amendments; the Senate passed the House version of the bill the next day. But the provinces could not usher in legal pot in a matter of weeks, so the federal government set a new deadline.

Recreational pot use has been permitted since Oct. 17, 2018, when Canada became the first G7 (and G20) country to formally legalize the cultivation, possession, acquisition, and consumption of cannabis. Uruguay is the only other country with a similarly legal marijuana regime; Canada’s liberalized pot laws are much more permissive than pot hotspots such as Amsterdam.

Each province established its own rules for distribution and consumption of marijuana, and the federal government set minimum punishments for supplying pot to minors or driving a motor vehicle while impaired by marijuana.

Insights West, a Vancouver-based research company, found that cannabis use is up since marijuana was legalized. In its online study, “The Future of Cannabis in Canada,” conducted for the Resonance Consultancy and Valens GroWorks, a cannabis products company, Insights found in late-December 2018 that 23 per cent of adult Canadians had used marijuana since the Oct. 17, change in law, and that five per cent of respondents said they consumed pot for the first time. About one in seven established users (16 per cent) reported they increased their use of marijuana.

Statistics Canada reports that legal pot sells for an average of $9.99 a gram (slightly higher in government-run stores than private establishments), while the black market rate is on average only $6.37 a gram. Not surprisingly, most people prefer to get their pot at a discount from illegal dealers.

Trudeau justified legalizing marijuana as a measure to ensure kids do not access pot and to take away a source or revenue for gangs. But the black market is still robust in Canada. A separate Statistics Canada report in January, reported legal sales of $2 billion in the first two months after legalization compared to $5 billion in black market pot sales.

The transition to legal pot has not been easy. Government-run stores complain of supply shortages and the market for recreational weed is reportedly leading to shortages of medical marijuana for those with legitimate prescriptions. The burgeoning cannabis industry is already lobbying for liberalization of consumption rules. So far, cannabis can only be consumed legally by smoking it. Cannabis that can be consumed through edibles, oils, vaping, or drinkable forms are not yet allowed, but the ink was barely dry on the legislation passed last June before cannabis companies complained about restrictions on the product.

It is also notable that Canada’s pot laws put the country at odds with three United Nations treaties on drugs: the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, the Convention on Psychotropic Drugs of 1971, and the UN Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988. These three treaties require signatories, including Canada, to limit and prohibit the possession, use, trade, and distribution of drugs outside of medical and scientific purposes. In September 2018 – a month before legalization took effectCanada also signed the United Nations’ “Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem,” committing Ottawa to “limit the production, manufacture, export, import, and distribution of, trade in, use, and possession of drugs to exclusively medical and scientific purposes.” On the day that marijuana became legal in Canada, the International Narcotics Control Board issued a statement expressing its “regret” over Canada legalizing cannabis.

It is too early to declare victory, as cannabis activists have, that the experiment with legal pot has been a success with no negative side-effects. It will take years before we know the physical and mental health effects of broader marijuana usage, as well as its impact on communities (family relationships, crime rates).

Yet there is reason for caution, which was ignored by the government when it pushed to allow recreational marijuana consumption in Canada.

Romina Mizrahi, a neuropharmacology specialist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, says that research indicates that marijuana use before the age of 25 is dangerous to the development of youths’ brains and that while the full effect is not known, it affects the brain’s “architecture” and “at this point in time there is no question that early use of cannabis … is associated with a higher risk of psychosis.” Furthermore, Claire McCarthy, faculty editor of Harvard Health Publishing, reports that initial research into the effects of secondhand marijuana smoke on children shows evidence that it can have permanent effects on memory and IQ.

If the law is a teacher, the powerful symbolic benefit of illegal marijuana has been lost. When pot was illegal, paren
ts and teachers could tell children that it was bad for them and employers could justify zero-tolerance policies to ensure safe work environments. All that is being replaced by public health campaigns about “safe consumption” and “how to talk to your kids about marijuana” on the one hand, while human rights litigation and labour boards will determine how much say bosses will have on how the now-legal drug impacts their workplace, on the other.

J.J. McCullough wrote in the Washington Postabout Canada’s pot liberalization, noting that marijuana is “a personal health hazard, a public nuisance, and a habit-forming depressant that routinely hurts families, friendships, careers and other important relationships,” so “the state held a legitimate mandate to stigmatize the substance.” Whatever downside there will be to destigmatizing pot use will not be fully comprehended until long after Justin Trudeau has left the political scene.