On the 17th October 2018 Canada made the monumental step of becoming the first G7 and G20 country to legalise cannabis. It was a hell of a journey, the outcome of which was shrouded in ambiguity and speculation. What would happen? Would the now stoned youth of Canada succumb to a Reefer-style madness? Or maybe the crime rate would plummet because everyone is too busy chilling on the sofa, red-eyed, with their hand in a bag of Cheetos. Now, nearly four months later, we have the answers.
Legalisation in some ways initiated a lot of change; the law itself, the experience of existing medical dispensaries, exports and general economic change. It has arguably set a standard for the developing world which undermines the ‘war on drugs’ mentality, most notably in its attitude towards releasing individuals convicted of minor cannabis-related offences. In other ways, some of which may be surprising, legalising cannabis has had little to no impact. This will be the first of a two-part series discussing the changes and various impacts of cannabis legalisation.
So now that cannabis is legal, what does that mean for possession and use? The Cannabis Act allows adults to
Possess up to 30g of legal cannabis in public
Share their 30g with other people
Buy cannabis or cannabis oil from a licensed shop or website
Grow up to 4 cannabis plants for personal use and
Make other cannabis products, like oil or edibles, at home .
This should be great news to Canadians, but in reality not much has changed for them. They can relish in the fact they no longer have to worry about smoking in public places, but there was little concern to begin with. Most of the public and even the police force have had years to become accustomed to and accepting of the sweet, lingering smell of Maryjane that wraps around the streets of major Canadian cities. So everything continued as normal for cannabis users .
One of the biggest changes we see is the impact that legalisation has on existing cannabis businesses. Dispensaries that have been operating under a medical licence in Canada may be facing fines because since cannabis became legal recreationally, medical cannabis retail licenses no longer exist . Businesses are supposed to apply for the new non-medical retail license, (a long, arduous and uncertain process) and close down their stores until it is awarded .Obviously closing down a profitable business for an undetermined amount of time is counterproductive, and according to a Vancouver-based medical dispensary I visited, “it’s more beneficial to the business and to our customers if we stay open and pay the fines they give us”. Lucky for them cannabis is big business, and with a painfully slow roll-out of licensed stores across the country, demand (and profit) is high.
One of the most notable impacts of legalisation is the government’s promise to release prisoners convicted of minor cannabis-related offences. Such individuals are eligible to apply for a record suspension, without paying the usual £365 fee or enduring the 5-10 year waiting period . This is life-changing for the thousands of Canadians in prison for smoking a few doobs, as well as monumental in terms of the Canadian government ‘recognizing the harms that have been done by criminalizing people’  and taking steps to rectify that. And with this acknowledgement, the legalisation of cannabis in Canada simultaneously undermines the US and UK’s ‘costly and unethical war on drugs’ that has preoccupied foreign and domestic policy since the 1970s . This progressive move by Canada does wonders to highlight the antiquated system of drug enforcement in other economically developed countries. They are leading by example and the rest should surely follow suit.
Usage and Crime
One of the most debated topics in cannabis-related discourse is the idea that the legalisation of cannabis would encourage a lot more people to start using it, inevitably resulting in nationwide, high-induced debauchery or at the very least, a stoned collective conscious. Those who are against legalisation would argue that legalising cannabis legitimises drug use and incites a fall into societal decline; so it shouldn’t be encouraged. But according to Statistics Canada, the government-led statistical research body, usage rates across the country have remained steady or declined since the new law came in to place in October .
It’s been 4 months since the transition and although there is more research to be done in the coming months, evidence from the National Cannabis Survey (NCS) suggests that not a lot has changed. People are using cannabis at pretty much the same rate as last year, and the use of other drugs has remained steady. So the argument from other economically developed countries, that legalising cannabis could encourage further drug use, does not apply here. As the first G20 country to legalise cannabis, Canada is the guinea pig. So this is an extremely positive outcome in terms of encouraging others to make the transition.
Another hotly debated topic is Canada’s crime rate. The Canadian government and others who are pro-legalisation have argued that, legalising recreational cannabis eliminates the need for an illegal black market. By making it legal and readily available from licensed retailers (in theory), consumers should have no reason to buy from illegitimate drug dealers and the need for a cannabis-related underworld should end. Replace the chain of supply and demand; simple, right? If only. Contrary to popular speculation, the crime rate hasn’t really budged .
The Canadian government wildly underestimated the initial demand for dry herb and there were widespread stock shortages from the offset, so the cannabis black market remains as it has for decades; thriving. But what else can be expected? Prior to legalisation the people of Canada consumed on average approximately 773.4 tons a year . That’s a LOT of weed guys! So if official statistics are anything to go by, the government could have been much better prepared for the scale of demand. Not to mention the price difference between black market and legal cannabis is significant at about $4-5 per gram, with the black market undercutting the legal every time . These factors considered, the climate that Canada has created doesn’t seem conducive to reducing cannabis-related crime! If you can get it cheaper and at your convenience from that shady-but-nice guy down the street, why wouldn’t you?
This is where other countries can learn from Canada and take steps to make sure they’re capable of meeting the demand of their country’s stoners. Luckily for Canadians, government officials have acknowledged their mistakes and assure that the shortage is coming to an end as they expand their contracts with private growers . Only time will tell if Canada is able to eliminate cannabis-related crime but as it currently stands, the illegal cannabis market is as important and profitable as it ever has been.
So, what’s changed since the legalisation of cannabis? Canadians can spark up without fear of persecution and those already imprisoned for doing so, are offered a new lease of life! Most importantly despite widespread speculation, the country has not succumb to drug-induced societal decline nor has it become a hazy, crime-free utopia. Could it be an example to the rest of the economically developed world; #legaliseit? Only time will tell!
The second part of this series will consider the cannabis industry from a business perspective, focusing on the trends and innovation coming out of Canada since legalisation.
- Canada Department of Justice (2018). Cannabis Legalization and Regulation. Department of Justice.
- Langton, J. (2019). 3 Months Since Legalization: A Snapshot of Canada's Legal Cannabis Market. [online] Leafly. Available at: https://www.leafly.com/news/canada/3-months-cannabis-legalization-canada.
- Liquor and Cannabis Regulation Branch (2018). Non-Medical Cannabis Retail Licence. Government of Canada.
- Liquor and Cannabis Sales Regulation Branch (2018). Non-Medical Cannabis Retail Sales: FAQ. Government of Canada.
- Johnson, G. and Gillies, R. (2018). Canada to pardon pot possession as it legalizes marijuana. [online] Financial Post. Available at: https://business.financialpost.com/pmn/business-pmn/canada-is-ready-to-open-the-door-wide-to-legal-marijuana.
- Tasker, J. (2018). Tens of thousands of Canadians could soon be eligible for a pot pardon, but lawyers warn about limitations | CBC News. [online] CBC. Available at: https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/tasker-pot-pardons-limitations-1.4866610.
- Macdonald, T. (2018). Canada Will Change The World Forever With Marijuana Legalization, Here's How. [online] MTL Blog. Available at: https://www.mtlblog.com/news/5-monumental-ways-canada-will-change-the-world-with-marijuana-legalization.
- Statistics Canada (2019). Cannabis Stats Hub. [online] Statistsics Canada. Available at: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/13-610-x/cannabis-eng.htm.