I cannot be the only one who feels the world is a little upside-down after Wednesday’s hearings on marijuana held by the House of Commons standing committee on health. The day’s proceedings were essentially broken into two parts. First, high-ranking Canadian police came before the committee to complain that they didn’t have the technical resources or the training to deal with legalized marijuana. They pleaded for the passage of the Liberals’ Cannabis Act to be delayed.
Then officials and scholars from the states of Colorado and Washington appeared to talk about their initial experiences with legalized marijuana. The contrast was remarkable. Canadian cops are behaving as if marijuana is a new problem for them—as if Justin Trudeau had just invented marijuana, and the stuff’s mystical properties are unfamiliar to every police officer in the land. The general thrust of the American testimony was not in conflict with the police demand to delay the legislation. Indeed, their major messages included going slow, getting it right, and learning from the history of the pot states. But none of the American witnesses, particularly the Washington and Colorado revenue bean-counters, showed any particular appetite for going back to the days of prohibition.
They could have come to Canada and said, “Oh, God, what are you crazy SOBs thinking?” There was little evidence of any such sentiment. I think it is safe to say that committee members who favour legalization, or who are anything other than implacably hostile to it, must have come away from the testimony broadly reassured.
Washington and Colorado have not descended into a nightmare of chaos because they have legalized “recreational marijuana.” By most social measures these states are about what they were before legalization. Youth use of pot is being watched closely, and it appears to be steady, possibly reduced. The states’ coffers have seen a modest benefit, and some of the money from pot taxation is made available for general drug education and abuse prevention—not just the more intensive outreach to young people about weed.
Prices for retail marijuana are so low, as large producers evolve, that both states are considering a possible mandated price floor. That is good for users, and particularly medical users, who might not just be people with official prescriptions. If we want marijuana to displace alcohol in social settings—which might be an intelligent policy goal if we really had discovered cannabis sativa yesterday—a low price is a good way of doing it.
One of the less-discussed benefits of pot legalization is that some people may have the opportunity to self-medicate in a relatively harmless way for anxiety, stress, low-level chronic pain, or even ordinary neuroses and personality disorders. There is strong evidence that legalized medical marijuana reduces Medicare expenses in the states that have gone for it.
Something that was hard to imagine before Washington and Colorado did the unthinkable, and which the witnesses from those states emphasized, is the relative popularity of edible cannabis products. They make up more of the legal pot market than anybody foresaw. This comes with problems of its own. Experts from both states testified that baked goods, chocolate bars, and other edibles have led to accidental cannabis exposures in small children. Some inexperienced adults seem to have had the Maureen Dowd experience of eating an inadvisably large amount of tetrahydrocannabinol-filled candy and freaking out a tad.
But, again, the plus side is that if you’re eating cannabis, you’re not smoking it. The health benefits to medical and chronic recreational users might be enormous. Fifty years after everybody finally legalizes cannabis, we may find it weird that anybody ever smoked it at all.
Radicals and hippies who argued for marijuana legalization in Canada endured decades of being told that, yes, it might be a good idea, but the United States won’t stand for it, and we can’t do it without their approval. This was not even an argument that there would be insuperable technical problems with following our own path on drug law. It was more like, “They’ll make frowny faces at us and it will make them dyspeptic in future trade negotiations.”
We were all asked to accept, as a fait accompli, the place of the U.S. government as a moral arbiter for Canada. Oh, we may not like it, but they’re our largest trading partner, etc., etc. (The conservatives who used to talk this way were the same people who are still the first to yelp about national sovereignty when it comes to defence spending.)
In 2017, we consider marijuana legalization on Parliament Hill, and while our own police try to slow it to a stop, it is American neighbours—respectable-looking white male accountant types!—who materialize with friendly advice and tacit encouragement. I may still not live long enough to actually buy marijuana legally in a Canadian retail store, but it is definitely amusing to have lived long enough to see this.