Opinion-Policy Nexus

Forget NAFTA. Forget Donald Trump. Forget the riveting battle over his Supreme Court nominee. Forget that astonishing encounter on a Capitol Hill elevator when two furious women shamed a Republican senator into doing the decent thing.

Put all that aside and consider this moment in Canadian history.

Cannabis – marijuana, pot, weed, call it what you will – will be legal across the country the week after next, on Oct. 17.

For the Liberal party and government, Oct. 17 will be a very big deal, a date to red-circle – commitment made, commitment honoured. For all those millennials who voted for the Liberals’ pot promise in the 2015 federal election, Oct. 17, 2018 will be the dawning of the age of Aquarius all over again. 

Pot users rejoice! No more police hassles. No more furtive toking. All hail the mighty weed!

There’s a frenzy on the stock market as speculators, salivating at predictions that the Canadian weed business will be worth $7 billion next year, push the shares of cannabis producers to absurd levels; Constellation Brands, maker of Corona beer, has just announced it will spend $4 billion to buy a piece (just a piece) of one of those producers, Canopy Growth.

Forgive me if I don’t leap on the bandwagon just yet.

According to polls, a majority of Canadians support the decriminalization of marijuana. However, the polls also reveal significant reservations about what may happen after Oct. 17. Is society ready?

That’s a fair question. Too many loose ends are floating in the air. Too many political assurances are founded on optimism or hope rather than reality. Too many jurisdictions are involved for a seamless implementation of the new regime. The feds will control production, product safety, packaging and advertising; provinces will handle distribution and sales; municipalities will have front-line responsibility for police enforcement.

Will they be able to achieve the three goals set out in the Cannabis Act, Bill C-45, that was approved this year. The three: keep cannabis out of the hands of youth; keep profits out of the hands of criminals; and protect public health and safety by allowing adults access to safe, legal cannabis.

To start with the first, the act establishes a minimum age of 18 for legal possession of pot (provinces may make the age higher). How, to be practical, how are authorities going to prevent an older sibling or friend from buying weed for someone under 18. It’s a pious hope.

As to criminal hands, the theory is legal pot will be cheap enough that the criminal black market will be unable to compete. But the combination of high-quality product demanded in C-45 and the insatiable appetite of governments for tax revenue – by some estimates, $1billion a year in excise tax and HST/GST – will surely make legal pot a pricey product.

Methinks the legislators underestimate the ingenuity of the criminal mind when it comes to fighting for market share.

As to public health, have you met a physician who believes legal marijuana will enhance the wellbeing of his patients? I haven’t, and I haven’t seen a poll in which a majority of doctors endorse the legislation.

Finally, as to public safety, there is no sign yet that the testing art has advanced enough to give police the reliable curbside tools they will need to keep the roads free of drug-impaired drivers.

I am not arguing that marijuana should or should not be made legal. But I am predicting that the transition from illegal to legal will not be smooth. Many things are bound go awry. And you can bet that Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives, the only party to oppose bill C-45, will hang every one of those things around the Liberals’ necks.

Me? I’m with Gerald Thomas, the University of Victoria scientist who told the annual Cannabis Hemp Conference and Expo at the University of British Columbia on the weekend: “We’re building the plane as we fly it.”

This plane won’t be airworthy by Oct. 17.


Monday, October 1, 2018 - 08:34