“A Massive Experiment”: What We Know About Canada’s Cannabis Legalization

Written by BlackbirdGo November 6, 2018
The History

For at least a generation, Canada has largely been thought of as North America’s progressive bastion. Socialized healthcare, a liberal stance on gay marriage, and even a willingness to dole out reparations for wrongs committed against indigenous peoples are all part of Canada’s broader liberal project, which, while imperfect, has contributed to a generally high quality of life for its citizens that keeps many Canadians happy and in relatively good health—especially when compared to the rest of the North American counterparts.

As of October 17, 2018, Canada can now add “cannabis legalization” to its portfolio of progressive victories, making it only the second nation in the world to federally legalize and regulate recreational cannabis throughout all of its regions.

With the legalization (including federal regulation and going beyond decriminalization) of cannabis laid out as the law of the land, Canada faces new opportunities—and challenges—in navigating territory that has only been explored by one other country. That country was Uruguay, which legalized the growth, manufacture, and sale of cannabis products in 2013. While Canada may indeed learn from its predecessor in this milestone shift in policy, in all likelihood the nation will face some growing pains and learn some critically important lessons as it navigates these mostly uncharted cultural waters.

One of those growing pains? The cannabis market itself.

Given the massive lines at nearly every cannabis retailer in the country, one can surmise that consumer excitement is at a fever pitch that isn’t likely to subside in the near future. This may be more of a mixed blessing than it seems.

While Canadian enthusiasm may vivify the operations of cannabis retailers and momentarily fatten their coffers, it is already being reported that there may not be enough legal weed in circulation to meet a demand on the legal market that has skyrocketed overnight. With many cannabusiness operators running or working with limited agricultural operations that have not yet pivoted to meet the needs of a rapidly changing cannabis-related economy, there is some fear that the stock of legally circulated cannabis products could vanish in the face of a ravenous local appetite for legal, easily acquired weed.

Vanishing stock isn’t the only challenge that a limited supply of legal weed in circulation presents for the Canadian government, economy, and its citizens. There is also the problem of the black market, which continues to thrive despite the government’s calculated effort to curb illicit transactions via legalization. While black market cannabis might seem generally harmless in a country where the purchase of cannabis products is legal, the reality is that a thriving black market may rankle efforts to collect tax revenue—most of which is reserved for the use of local provinces and territories—limit regulation of safety standards and access (the minimum age or purchase is 19), and destabilize pricing.

Then there is the matter of banking. With federal legality in play, banks that were previously unwilling to transact with dispensaries and other cannabusinesses will have to quickly come up with a response to a newly opened revenue stream—and decide how they’ll do business with an industry they’ve been unenthusiastic about working with.

These market factors may portend a bumpier roll-out for legal cannabis throughout Canada’s provinces than may have been assumed. The agricultural and administrative sectors of various cannabis businesses will have to make rapid adjustments if they are to position themselves for success in a dramatically altered market that is set to transform even further as more legalization measures appear to be on the horizon and legislators eye introducing legal edibles over the course of the next year.

Beyond the economic implications of cannabis legalization, there are also social matters to take into consideration, particularly as they pertain to matters of public health and safety. In an editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Doctor Diane Kelsall (chief editor of the medical journal) expressed concern that increased investment in growth by cannabis retailers will mean more aggressive marketing tactics—some legal and others not-so-legal—that encourage present users to increase their use and encourage non-users to begin indulging in products that she argues can damage the lungs or have other effects on the mind and body.

Beyond the individual implications of cannabis product usage, public health officials worry about increased driver impairment and insist that the federal government must take responsibility for the results of their experiment by aggressively funding public outreach literature warning Canada’s locals and visitors of cannabis’ risk factors and enforcing regulations to the fullest extent of the law. To some degree, the federal government (and the provinces) have already begun to take such steps, implementing province-level limitations on the sale of cannabis that add “needed” limitations to the broad federal law, as well as more stringent impaired-driving rules that will hopefully prevent the kinds of increases in impaired driving that have recently plagued Colorado (the first region to legalize recreational cannabis in the United States).

While the challenges associated with cannabis legalization at the federal level are numerous, it should not be assumed that these problems will outweigh the benefits that may emerge from this move. As mentioned previously, provided retailers get their stock situation under control, provinces will benefit tremendously from the tax revenue generated by an enthusiastic market, likely increasing funding for education, public health care, capital improvements, and other investments throughout the region. Moreover, federal legality will open up pathways to scientific advancement where the study of cannabis and its medical impacts are concerned, as federal obstacles to circulation and public intellectualism pertaining to cannabis dissolve. This may lead to advancements in controlled medical treatments that incorporate the use of cannabis in place of other options, providing those who suffer from chronic pain, anxiety, or other health challenges with greater latitude to address their ailments.

In legalizing cannabis, Canada has joined Uruguay as a leader in exploring a mostly uncharted frontier. The world has a meaningful opportunity to learn from these nations as they navigate the challenges and opportunities associated with this paradigm-shifting change in policy—both known and unknown.

Disclaimer: Keep out of reach of children. For use only by adults 21 years of age and older.