Canada today begins what has been called a social experiment or a cultural revolution. Call it what you will, the reverberations are unknown.
The legalization of pot has been massively complex and the societal, economic and political effects will take time to show themselves.
It may well be that the country isn’t ready for legalization. The issue over drug-impaired driving has not been satisfactorily resolved; there are fears a shortage of legal cannabis will boost the black market; different regulations in various provinces will lead to confusion, and Canadians still face the prospect of being banned from the U.S. if they admit to pot use.
And despite cannabis becoming legal today, the nation is still split on the matter: while 52 per cent are in favour of the new law, according to a Forum poll, 41 per cent are opposed.
Meanwhile, many in the medical community remain adamantly against it.
This week, an editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal warned that Canada was launching “a national, uncontrolled experiment in which the profits of cannabis producers and tax revenues are squarely pitched against the health of Canadians.”
The CMAJ pointed out that Health Canada said that sales of the drug would cause a problem in nearly 1 in 3 adult users and an addiction in close to 1 in 10, with higher risks for youth.
“Canadians are entering this new reality,” Dr. F. Gigi Osler, the association’s president told The New York Times. “One of our messages continues to be: Just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s safe.”
And just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it will be available.
Already there are worries about a shortage of cannabis in the early months of legalization and a lack of retail outlets, leading to a possible boom in the illicit marijuana trade the law is designed to thwart.
The provinces, tasked with regulating the distribution and sale of cannabis, are adopting a range of differing approaches. Want to grow your own pot? Fine in most parts of the country (with a limit of four plants per household) but don’t try it in Quebec or Manitoba where do-it-yourself pot production is banned.
Vic Neufeld, chief executive of Aphria Inc., one of the top producers, said he expected shortages of pot to occur for two or three months until production increased and there was a better understanding of consumer demand.
“It’s like trying to merge a five-lane highway into a one-lane country road,” he said. “It’s tough to get everything through the bottleneck on a timely basis.”
The anticipated shortage through retail outlets could be a major boost for black market providers, according to Anindya Sen, an economics professor at the University of Waterloo. He noted that many of those suppliers already use websites, apps and even home delivery for their offerings.
“My fear is that in provinces like British Columbia or Ontario where we have no retail access, it will be easy to” find illicit suppliers online, he told The Washington Post. “You put in your postal code and up pops a legal supplier or a guy in a truck.”
And, as the New York Times reported, if you are in British Columbia be sure to keep your plants far from the backyard fence or windows. Any plants that can be viewed from a public space will solicit a fine of $5,000 or three months in jail.
It’s like trying to merge a five-lane highway into a one-lane country road
What is clear is the huge potential for business. Canada’s move has spurred the growth of a global industry focused on medical and recreational use that could be worth as much as US$150 billion, according to estimates from Roth Capital Partners.
Brendan Kennedy, chief executive officer of Tilray, based in Nanaimo, B.C., told Bloomberg News he expected a third country to follow the lead of Canada and Uruguay and legalize recreational pot within a year.
And he also expected several more countries to legalize medical marijuana.
“I started working in this industry eight and a half years ago when there were 15 countries that had legal access to medical cannabis, today there are 35,” Kennedy said. “It’s really clear to me that we’ll get to 40, 50, 60 total countries that legalize medical cannabis over the next two years.”
Whether the law is a success or a failure, one thing is certain: the world is watching.
“A lot of European countries will be looking at what is happening here,” said Sen. “If Canada gets it right, it could be a world leader.”
The CMAJ had a similar sentiment, but struck a different tone. “If use of cannabis increases, the federal government should have the courage to admit the legislation is flawed and amend the act. Canadians — and the world — will be watching.”
— With files from The Washington Post and news services
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