An Abacus Data poll released this week suggests Canadians are ready for marijuana legalization even if their governments might not be: Strong majorities of respondents in every age group and in every region said they could support or at least “accept” the framework that goes into effect Oct. 17. Even 54 per cent of Conservative voters said they could support or accept legal weed.
Three years ago, pot was a major front in Stephen Harper’s war for survival: A foreboding advertisement invited Canadians to “imagine selling marijuana just like cigarettes and alcohol,” and without further analysis declared Justin Trudeau “in way over his head.” Weeks before the election, Harper declared marijuana “infinitely worse” than tobacco.
The rhetoric and scene-setting did not cool down over the ensuing three years. During a memorable Senate sitting in March, Senator Marie-Françoise Mégie, a Justin Trudeau appointee, imagined a 12-year-old demanding to grow marijuana in his family home.
“What will (his parents) say?” she asked. “It will be legal, after all.”
Conservative MP Peter Kent argued marijuana retail would be “virtually the same as putting fentanyl on a shelf within reach of kids.” Marilyn Gladu, currently the party’s health critic, predicted children would be recruited as “drug mules” because they will face no criminal sanction for possessing less than five grams of weed. (Children face no criminal sanction for possessing alcohol or tobacco, either.) Conservative house leader Larry Smith foresaw “a classroom of 12-to-13-year-old children, all permitted to have five grams of pot on their desks.”
Gladu went so far as to read an anti-marijuana poem in the House of Commons, imploring unelected Senators to save them from themselves: “We hope that the Senate will do its true deed / And keep our great country safe from all the weed.”
Provinces planning to sell marijuana just like cigarettes and alcohol include conservative-governed Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario — where Premier Doug Ford tore up a timid state-run model designed under the previous Liberal government and threw open the doors: not only will there will be no cap on the number of private-sector licensees but, subject to municipal override, you’ll be able to smoke a joint just anywhere you can smoke a cigarette.
The resistance continues, certainly. In a special meeting on Tuesday, just days before Ontario’s municipal elections, City Council in Markham, Ont., passed a bylaw restricting marijuana smoking to private residences. It had earlier voted 12-1 in favour of “opting out” of storefront retail, as allowed for under provincial regulations.
“When you’re taking your grandmother down the street for a walk, (we don’t want you) having to be exposed to a number of individuals potentially at a street corner participating in it,” says Mayor Frank Scarpitti.
Richmond, B.C., is another refusenik jurisdiction. Mayor Malcolm Brodie notes the city took a much harsher approach than neighbouring Vancouver to the proliferation of illegal dispensaries, throwing the book at the only one that attempted to open. And he credits the provincial government with listening to municipalities’ concerns and allowing them to go their own ways
Indeed, considering the Reefer Madness-level debate, it seems somewhat remarkable how peacefully this sea change is washing over the country — and it seems the patchwork of provincial and municipal rules, much derided by Conservatives, is partly to credit for that.
Smith argues the federal government’s education plan wasn’t finished soon enough to head off potential problems, and that roadside impairment testing remains a giant question mark. “There shouldn’t be a question mark when you’re rolling out such an important new product,” says Smith (or a very very old product, as the case may be).
Sharon Burey, a behavioural pediatrician in Windsor, Ont., and vice-president of the Pediatricians Alliance of Ontario, unequivocally supports getting pot-using kids away from the justice system, But the PAO argued last year governments need to focus far more on the potential damage of marijuana to developing brains.
“We know the sky’s not going to fall,” she says. But she notes there’s a serious “lack of resources for mental health for children” as it stands, and the potential for more demand legalization leads to increased use. (Marijuana use rose by roughly a third among Colorado adults after legalization, but fell among teens.)
Social conservative leader Charles McVety has certainly not been mollified. “Think of the destruction, and the social costs and the health care costs associated with (legalization),” he implored in a video before the federal legislation passed. If anything, he says, he’s more worried now than he was then — about children’s brains and impaired driving in particular. And he’s especially disappointed in Ford, whom he supported over his vow to repeal and replace the previous government’s sex-ed curriculum.
“They’re running drugs and alcohol, soon brothels I’m sure — gambling, they (already) run,” McVety laments. “It’s like Al Capone is running our government.”
Nevertheless, he and Gladu agree their battle is lost: Marijuana will stay legal, and its deleterious effects will have to be dealt with in that reality. Considering every single one of those deleterious effects existed long before legalization landed on the agenda — plus many others associated with prohibition itself — that only seems eminently sensible.
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