By Maggie McCutcheon
For a while now, the busier streets of Canada’s major cities have played host to a constantly changing cast of cannabis dispensaries. Despite their proclivity for opening and closing suddenly, one might believe medical — or even recreational — use of marijuana and its various by-products is legal in pot-loving Canada. Think again. Since Justin Trudeau’s election in 2015, interested parties have been waiting with bated breath to see if this young politician will follow through on his most popular campaign promise. But we’re all thinking it: will legalization come like the support for our indigenous communities — slowly and riddled with caveats?
The latest from Trudeau is a promise of legalization by July 1, 2018. Under this new law, Canadian individuals can possess up to 30 grams of dried marijuana and can cultivate up to four plants per residence. The punishments currently familiar to Canadians are to be replaced with harsh legislation aimed at protecting youths: providing marijuana to a minor is going to be punishable by up to 14 years in jail. However, provinces are struggling to agree on policy, pleading for Ottawa to extend this deadline and to foot the transition’s start-up bills. Although Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau insists Ottawa is firm on this deadline, the proof will be in the eagerly-devoured pudding.
In 2003, Canadian citizens basked in the glory of a week-long decriminalization, but it was quickly removed and criticized globally for defying efforts to fight drug-related crime. Since then, it seems Canadians everywhere stopped caring about its illegality and continued on their merry, red-eyed way. If many can attest to the fact that violation of the current possession laws is rarely punished harshly (if at all), what is preventing the laws from catching up with public opinion?
Though provinces are working to prepare for this new shift in legislation — agreeing on regulation concerns like a legal age, enforcement techniques, public education, advertisement policy, and other inspired reams of paperwork — they remain querulous. Ottawa is pushing for lower taxes to encourage legal consumption, but Ministers worry if it will generate enough revenue to cover the transition-related administration expenses, despite the elevated cost of the current prohibition model. This July 1 promise isn’t a guarantee either. There remain issues in the orbit of legalization that could delay the passing of this proposed bill indefinitely.
Obviously, driving while impaired is and will continue to remain illegal into the foreseeable future. But the market still lacks an adequate way of measuring and enforcing THC exposure. Unlike alcohol, which is easily measured by a Breathalyzer test, THC remains in the system for possibly weeks. Without a standard method to definitively prove someone is impaired on the side of the road, it becomes difficult to enforce. The public’s favourite case-study, Colorado, responded to this concern in the spring by rolling out an oral-swab program. The machines test for the presence of seven drugs but cannot determine the level of intoxication.
The problems following Colorado’s move to legalize can be educational for other countries looking to do the same. For instance, since their decision to legalize, health care providers have noted higher numbers of babies being born with marijuana in their system. This could be due to a growing trend of women using THC-vacant marijuana strains as a last resort treatment for rare cases of extreme morning sickness (known as hyperemesis gravidarum). But a good education program would help to evade more malignant instances of prenatal consumption. Many widely accessible and legal products and substances are not suitable for use during pregnancy and come with appropriate warnings.
While the federal, provincial, and municipal governments set out to navigate the seas of legal weed, the chances of a privately owned dispensary staying operational under a public system are low. These dispensaries are operating in the pain-to-enforce gap created by the looming promise of pot legalization. Enforcement and raids are conducted at the municipal level where governments just haven’t had the chance to develop by-laws, especially as they anticipate possible legalization.
Masquerading as clinics and compassion centres, these businesses have opened up in droves and with record highs in 2016. This boom was followed by an increase in police raids, but many of the businesses stubbornly kept their doors open. The sign-up procedure differs: sometimes they request a doctor’s note, sometimes the customer is put on camera with a vaguely licensed professional, and sometimes you just have to provide identification. Legally speaking, however, it makes little to no difference. Not one of these companies, or the farms their products come from, is an official Authorized Licensed Producer. Raids do happen and can yield real consequences despite how comfortable everyone seems to feel in dispensaries.
A Schedule II drug, cannabis and all its by-products (including CBD, seeds, and synthetic compounds as well) are illegal to possess, to seek to obtain, or to seek authorization to obtain, in Canada. If you’re caught in possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana, you can be subject to a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars and imprisonment not exceeding six months for a first offense and double this for subsequent trespasses.
While Canadians patiently wait to see if Trudeau will actually follow through on this promise, it is important for consumers to remember the current laws are still in place and are enforceable — even if you don’t agree with them. Consumers, staff, and business owners alike are all at risk of being subject to the law and its enforcers by showing up to a dispensary.
Know your rights and understand the law.