[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t only takes a brief walk around campus to realize how thoroughly marijuana has worked its way into university life. Flyers that advertise cannabis culture events are stapled to soft boards, vaporizers peek out of pockets and backpacks, and the unmistakable smell of pot smoke seeps from alleyways and the windows of fraternities.
Further west into Kensington Market, the air thickens with marijuana smoke; dispensaries and head shops line the crowded streets. Beyond Kensington, cannabis culture shops continue to populate Yonge Street, Bloor Street, and Queen Street West.
The pervasiveness of marijuana use throughout the city is a perfect example of how Canadian criminal law — which prohibits recreational cannabis use — is not always sufficient to stamp out the behaviours it inhibits. Yet, a storm is brewing within the hallowed halls of Parliament: a brand new cannabis regulation system may on the horizon.
When the Liberal Party of Canada pledged to legalize marijuana during their 2015 election campaign, many welcomed the idea. Now after taking office, the Liberal government seems intent upon keeping its word.
The government has stated it will “legalize, regulate, and restrict access to marijuana,” and it has appointed Honorable Bill Blair, Liberal Member of Parliament and former Toronto Chief of Police, to spearhead the project.
Support of the masses
Many university students stand in favour of this proposition. “I don’t think it is right that the government can decide what we want to put in or do to our bodies,” explains Serena*, a third-year student at Innis College. “If we are legally allowed to poison ourselves with alcohol and cigarettes, then I think it should be [okay] for us to be able to have a toke or two on a Saturday night.”
“I absolutely believe marijuana should be legalized,” agrees Jenny*, a second-year student at Ryerson University. “It has been proven to improve a growing list of mental illnesses and physical ailments; it allows for many to ‘cope’ with the reality inherited from a corrupt, and otherwise socially unjust society; and it expands the mind to a point of untapped potential.”
These attitudes coincide with a recorded growth of acceptance and tolerance for cannabis use in Canada. An estimated 43 per cent of Canadians over the age of 15 have tried cannabis at least once in their lifetime, and a November 2015 poll revealed that 59 per cent of Canadians support its legalization, regulation, and taxation.
Dr. Patricia Erickson, professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Toronto and scientist emerita in public health and regulatory policy at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), has recently been tracing marijuana use in Canada. She states that the trend toward tolerance of cannabis has been called a ‘phenomenon of normalization’ — not only because of its prevalence but also due to an increased cultural tolerance among non-users for the activity.
“[There is] more willingness to see it as an activity that doesn’t necessarily go with being a deviant or being involved in other types of illegal activities,” Erickson explains. She emphasizes that normalization is restricted to cannabis use that does not interfere with regular activities, which means that ‘stoners’ or chronic users may still be looked down upon by their peers.
If the government is serious about legalizing marijuana, it will still need to overcome many obstacles, regardless of the apparent public support. It will take cautious consideration of how cannabis regulation will affect all domains, in order to responsibly see the project through to completion.
Laws pertaining to all illegal drugs are included within the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA). The CDSA is a federal statute that outlines all prohibitions, penalties, and procedures related to the prosecution of drug-related offences. It classifies substances by ‘schedules’ according to severity , and cannabis, its preparations, and its derivatives are listed as Schedule II substances.
Cannabis-related offences in the CDSA include possession, trafficking, importing and exporting, and production. Many of these offences carry mandatory minimum penalties of one or two years imprisonment, especially if there are aggravating circumstances — such as a public safety and health hazard or the involvement of persons under the age of 18. If a person is convicted of trafficking or of importing or exporting cannabis, they can potentially receive a prison sentence of 14 years.
Nevertheless, many individuals remain unaware of the prohibitions. Part of Erickson’s work has involved interviews with marijuana users whose testimonies reflect the extent of their awareness of the law.
“Many people we talked to weren’t aware that it was actually still illegal to possess cannabis,” Erickson says. “It’s sort of de facto legalized in their minds, they’re not going to get arrested or be bothered. Which, when you consider the number of users versus the number of people taken to court, they’re probably reasonably accurate.”
[pullquote]“It’s sort of de facto legalized in their minds, they’re not going to get arrested or be bothered. Which, when you consider the number of users versus the number of people taken to court, they’re probably reasonably accurate.”[/pullquote]
Despite the federal government’s newfound commitment to legalization, criminal penalties are still being enforced for marijuana-related offences. In many cases, prosecutors continue to seek convictions and imprisonment, even for relatively minor offences, like possession for personal use.
Establishments that arouse the suspicions of police are also being shut down. In January 2016, Toronto police raided Good Weeds Lounge and charged the owners with possession and trafficking.
Alongside vaporizers, the lounge was known for selling marijuana, resins, and extracts. The raid came less than two weeks after a Vice News article — which featured an interview with the lounge’s owners — lauded the unbridled success of recreational marijuana shops in Toronto.
Another similar incident occurred in 2015, when the police closed down Melanheadz, a vape lounge that had been selling cannabis, extracts, and edibles without a license.
Jenny recounts two occasions on which she had been apprehended for marijuana-related infractions. The first time, she was high, and her partner, who had quit smoking marijuana the previous year, was driving her to his parents’ house. When they were pulled over for a random spot-check, an officer confiscated Jenny’s joint and let them go.
On the second occasion, the police asked to inspect Jenny’s vehicle, and they discovered cannabis residue left behind by Jenny’s partner’s friend in the backseat.
She was questioned and released with a warning, but Jenny was shaken — particularly because the officers had told her they had a file on her person from the previous incident.“Since then I have had a pretty sour taste in my mouth concerning those in authority, and their awareness about natural substances which alleviate health conditions,” Jenny says.
Lawyer Steven Tress, who practices criminal and immigration law in Toronto, has experience with marijuana-related cases. The majority of his criminal law clients have been non-violent grow-op offenders, who began growing cannabis for sale in their homes in order to ease financial troubles.
He hints at a problem inherent to the current criminalization framework: the law as it stands may target some people who are not particularly harmful or who have not committed very egregious acts.
“Almost all of the clients in that industry are not what the public would characterize as criminals,” Tress says. “They are just guys who are in financial trouble, they heard of this thing, and they decided to take the risk. And then they get caught, and you have to deal with a potential criminal record.”
In a similar vein, Erickson criticizes the current system’s rigidity, inefficiency, and injustice. She emphasizes that it shows little mercy for offenders even when they are associated with respectable operations.
“You’re putting resources into the punishment side, you’re getting no benefit from taxes, and you’re funding, in some cases, violent criminal organizations,” Erickson says. “Or, you might be going after some of the so-called mom and pop growers tucked around that, really, are often connected with the dispensaries, but they are providing services for sick people.”
“Criminal law is such a blunt instrument, isn’t it?” she adds.
The devil’s in the details
Shifting regulation of marijuana out of the crime world is easier said than done; the complexities of marijuana-related laws confuse and convolute the drug’s future trajectory.
First, there is a common confusion between decriminalization and legalization. Decriminalization would only remove criminal penalties related to a substance, while legalization would also provide a legal framework for its supply and consumption.
Though the term ‘legalization’ is favoured by the media, many experts prefer to use ‘legal regulation’ to describe the ways in which governments can control substances, when they are no longer entangled with criminality.
The landscape of legal regulation in Canada is perplexing at best. In addition to the criminal provisions listed in the CDSA, medical marijuana regulations present an entirely different beast.
Currently, the only legal way to obtain cannabis in Canada is legally though a medical professional. This allows patients to order medical cannabis through licensed Canadian producers, which are regularly inspected by Health Canada.
Rigorous and expensive government standards, however, have dashed the hopes of many potential producers; only 29 licensed Canadian medical marijuana producers are still in business.
These licensing restrictions were put into place by the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR), which came into effect June 2013 and replaced the previous Marihuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR).
Unlike the liberal conditions of the MMAR, the MMPR prohibited growth of medical marijuana outside the Health Canada licensing framework. It invalidated all previously issued licenses that enabled patients to grow their own medicine or designate others to do so on their behalf.
This sparked a court challenge to the MMPR under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the case Allard et al v. Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada.
The argument was that a patient’s health was compromised by allowing them to purchase only from producers that may not have adequate supply, may not carry the appropriate strain for their medical needs, or may not price products within the patient’s means.
While the court deliberated, an immediate injunction was issued; it enabled both the MMPR and the MMAR to operate simultaneously, but it still did not allow every medical user to grow their own product.
In late February 2016, the court ruled that the MMPR was in violation of the Charter and thus struck it down. The declaration of invalidity of the MMPR has been suspended for six months in order to give the government time to concoct a replacement framework of regulation.
To add to the legal and regulatory confusion, different interpretation and selective enforcement of CDSA regulations have occurred at the provincial level. The 2015 Ontario decision in R. v. Vu eliminated the six-month mandatory minimum penalty of production for the purposes of trafficking marijuana when the operation does not exceed 200 plants, but the ruling only applies within the province’s borders. Prior to this, a British Columbia provincial court judge refused to issue a mandatory minimum sentence, letting the accused go instead.
The government will need to sort out these inconsistencies when formulating new laws. If legal regulation of marijuana does occur, it will lead to a sea of change in Canadian law.
“People have talked about legalization ever since I’ve been in the field, but nobody has ever got to the point in Canada of putting out a blueprint,” says Erickson. “There’s never been a discussion of what [would happen] if we actually didn’t punish at all, but in fact, provided a legal system of availability.”
[pullquote]“There’s never been a discussion of what [would happen] if we actually didn’t punish at all, but in fact, provided a legal system of availability.”[/pullquote]
Experts from different fields are in favour of legalization for a variety of reasons. Ronan Levy is the director and general counsel of Canadian Cannabis Clinics, the leading group of medical marijuana clinics in the country. He states that most individuals within the company support legal regulation. “Not, by any stretch, because we are zealous advocates of marijuana,” Levy explains. “Rather, we think legalization is a pragmatic and rational response to life in our times.”
Levy lists several potential benefits of legalizing cannabis for adult recreational use, including government tax revenues, diverting individuals away from the correctional system, and ensuring that the cannabis being provided to consumers is clean and free from lacing.
Others are more cautious in their approach to the drug. “I do think there’s reason to seriously consider de-criminalizing possession and consumption of small amounts of marijuana,” explains Vincent Chiao, assistant professor at U of T’s Faculty of Law. He adds, however, that he does not think legalization should lead to a “wild west” approach to marijuana. “Getting a clearer picture of the social and medical risks of marijuana consumption, in all its forms, and at various levels of consumption, is also important, as that will inform how to regulate and/or tax the industry,” Chiao says.
Tress also mentions that reducing the number of criminal charges for marijuana would have a positive effect on the court system; it would decrease the backlog of cases, as well as the financial cost of seeing charges through to conviction.
The realization of changes like this could shake Canada’s legal system to its core, which is why Chiao advises that progress should proceed with caution. “The devil is very much in the details here,” he says.
For some, the details are a bleak prospect. “I find that pot enthusiasts are quick to be in favour of legalization without considering the increased costs that would subsequently follow,” says Polly*, a fourth-year cinema studies student. “I’m certain that the government would seize the opportunity to tax the sale of marijuana, whether to deter its use, or simply capitalize on opportunity. Legalization means regulation, which means higher cost, restricted access for the general public, and greater punishment attributed to illegal sales.”
An international outlook
As the policy laundry list continues to grow, the government will be wise to look to others for help.
Canada is certainly not the first to make a move towards cannabis regulation. Various methods and philosophies have resulted in unique consequences for jurisdictions that have previously tackled cannabis regulation.
Perhaps most notorious for cannabis regulation is the Netherlands, which has been operating on a system of limited sale and use for nearly 40 years. Contrary to popular belief, however, marijuana remains technically illegal for the Dutch, with criminal prohibitions on cultivation and wholesale distribution.
Dutch law permits the establishment of licensed ‘coffeeshops’ or weed cafes that can sell small quantities of cannabis to buyers over the age of 18. Though the Netherlands appears to be tightening regulations in recent years, a 2015 survey found that 70 per cent of residents support looser restrictions on the cultivation of marijuna plants.
In Portugal, on the other hand, marijuana and all other drugs are decriminalized. Individuals found to be in possession of recreational drugs are treated as patients rather than offenders and encouraged to seek rehabilitation; there are still restrictions on the quantity one can possess for personal use though. Most strikingly, selling and producing marijuana and other drugs remains entirely illegal, meaning that the drug trade remains confined to precarious black market operations.
In 2014, Colorado became the first US state to legalize the sale of marijuana for recreational purposes. In 2015, the state’s total legal recreational and medicinal sales topped out at an estimated $996.2 million; the government ended up raking in more than $135 million in sales tax and licensing fees.
Since then, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, DC have followed suit. The legalization movement of medical marijuana in California has been in effect for two decades; it brings in an estimated $1 billion in yearly sales and is still picking up speed.
Colorado provides an interesting case study though, because it highlights both the positive and negative effects of legal cannabis regulation, many of which have yet to be measured in conclusive studies.
For example, the immense consumer demand for food products infused with cannabis was an unexpected effect of legalization. In 2014, over 2.85 million cannabis cookies, brownies, and other edibles were sold in commercial stores.
This soon proved problematic for regulators, who did not anticipate the need to indicate the amount of cannabis that could be legally included within a single serving size. After several cases of overdose, Colorado scrambled to limit the amount of cannabis per serving.
This demonstrates the complexity inherent in cannabis regulation, and the extensive maneuvering it will take to iron out the kinks of a comprehensive policy.
In Canada, the division of powers between the federal and provincial governments further complicates the situation. While criminal law is under federal jurisdiction, other spheres like healthcare and property are left to the provinces.
According to Tress, this could lead to significant disparities in legal regulation and its effects across the country.“I have a feeling that it will be left to the provinces to deal with it,” he states. “And then the problem is, different provinces have different rules… I think working out that mechanism is going to be the most problematic.”
Erickson highlights the legal challenges Canada may face on the international stage, as a signatory of the United Nations’ Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
This treaty might restrict Canada’s ability to legally regulate cannabis, a sticky situation that the US has bypassed because its changes in drug policy have only been made at the state level. Legalization in Canada is being spearheaded by the federal government though, which means that it will not be able to avoid the international implications.
Business is blazing
Considering the potential profits of regulation — as exemplified by some US states — its implementation will likely have an impact on the Canadian economy.
Seeing as how the demand for cannabis is not currently subsiding, its underground economy will continue to flourish, so long as it is remains illegal.
In some cases, the illegal sale of weed is elaborately planned and executed with high quality customer service. Recounting her best experience purchasing cannabis, Polly describes the sophistication of the industry in New York City.
“The courier industry runs a sort of underground cartel there when it comes to weed,” Polly says. “If you know the right people, you can have special, unmarked packages delivered to your doorstep. If you’re not in a rush, the dealer comes to your place with a menu, tells you what sort he’s selling, and what sort of high you’ll get. It feels more like an authentic transaction than it does in Canada, to be honest.”
“It’s an elegant ordeal too — there are no dime bags like you get here,” Polly adds. “The product comes in a pill bottle, and it’s [labelled] according to the strain and the type of high you’ll get.”
Serena has had positive experiences obtaining marijuana for medical use through two Canadian compassion club memberships that require her be authorized by a medical practictioner.
“The clubs I go [to] pride themselves on quality and know what they are selling, which helps users with specific needs get what they want,” she says. “Purchasing cannabis through clubs also allows the user to go back to the club and return something if the quality is not up to par, or the effects do not assist their disability.”
If a legal supply of weed is to be made available in Canada for consumer purchase, who will be allowed to sell it needs to be considered first. As it stands, business-minded people are already hedging their bets on the regulatory framework that might be adopted — and getting ready to pounce.
Several recent proposals reflect a ‘big-box’ retail outlook on the industry. For instance, Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne has suggested that it would be prudent to sell cannabis through the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, which is the regulatory system already in place for the sale of alcohol in the province.
Shoppers Drug Mart has also expressed their interest in dispensing medical marijuana from their pharmacies, an announcement that caused comedy television series This Hour Has 22 Minutes to imagine the imminent sale of ‘Life Brand marijuana.’
Tress warns of the problems with price control, if the government leaves marijuana in the hands of big businesses. “If you’re setting up pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, and they’re going to get into it, they control their own prices,” he says. “If they start charging too much, it might be cheaper to buy it on the street. Then you’re back into the crime scene.”
Smaller businesses, especially those already involved with the cannabis industry, will likely suffer if legal regulation of marijuana is controlled by large corporations.
Robin Ellins, proprietor of the cannabis culture shop Friendly Stranger, explains his outlook on the new regime: “We are looking to see a model that reflects the same type of legislation that currently governs craft brewers, with licenses for growers and retailers and proper age restrictions,” Ellins says. “The market should be allowed to thrive through thoughtful regulation and check systems, but still be in the hands of the cannabis industry and not taken over by large corporate grow-ops and narrow distribution channels.”
Paul Eichgrun is the co-owner of Cloud 9, a cannabis culture shop on Queen Street West that has been operating for 12 years. Up a steep slope of steps and tucked behind a popular burger chain, Eichgrun runs his business in a narrow, well-lit space; he sells pipes, bongs, vaporizers, and other products to cannabis enthusiasts.
He emphasizes that Cloud 9 is, first and foremost, a small business. “This is no different than me selling shoes, really,” he says. “It’s location, it’s price, it’s all those things. That’s how we’ve always looked at it.”
Predicting the course of commerce, Eichgrun feels that businesses like his will grow exponentially once marijuana laws are relaxed and the stigmas diminish. “Of course, like anything else, there will be more and more new retailers, and there will be a battle to see who survives,” he says. “I’m probably guessing there will be hundreds and hundreds in that first or second year. That’ll filter down to an appropriate number for sales. The rest won’t survive.”
[pullquote]“Of course, like anything else, there will be more and more new retailers, and there will be a battle to see who survives.”[/pullquote]
For different reasons, the number of coffeeshops licensed to sell marijuana in the Netherlands has recently decreased.
Last year, 28 coffeeshops in Amsterdam were closed, due to violations of the distance requirement they must be from schools. Traditionally, the city was pretty lax about enforcing the distance rules, but it has recommitted to cracking down on crime and nuisance — including cannabis use among youth — in exchange for an exemption from the national ban on non-residents attending coffeeshops.
As of January 2016, there are an estimated 160 coffeeshops still operating in Amsterdam, but this number is constantly in flux. Canadian businesses would be wise to expect similar volatility in the marijuana industry, especially at the onset of a new regulatory regime.
There is also the matter of what will happen within the medical marijuana industry. Since the MMPR was struck down, the government has been on a tight deadline to come up with a new framework. Depending on what they cook up, the new policy may have significant impacts for marijuana-related businesses.
Legal professionals have been working on the matter of medical marijuana since long before the MMPR came into force. Lawyers Hugo Alves and Michael Lickver are two of Canada’s leading advisors on the medical marijuana industry. Lickver works as a corporate commercial, mergers and acquisitions, securities, and corporate finance lawyer and associate at Canadian law firm Bennett Jones.
Lickver inadvertently became involved with the medical marijuana industry in his first year of practice, when he agreed to help a client on a pro bono basis; this was done on the condition that the client would return for future representation when he could pay for it. The client eventually went on to become the CEO of a medical marijuana company and, staying true to his word, marched straight back to Lickver’s office.
“That was a perfect storm,” Lickver says. “That first file was big. We were raising a couple million dollars for a start-up medical marijuana producer who had just submitted their application.”
Subsequently, Lickver and Alves devoted themselves to studying the processes that characterize the medical marijuana industry and familiarized themselves with all parties involved. Beyond production, the industry is booming with dealers, research laboratories, e-commerce specialists, and security consultants. The lawyers’ goal was to reach a more comprehensive understanding of the industry, by getting involved in as many aspects as possible.
Today, Lickver and Alves run the leading corporate law practice representing the medical marijuana industry in Canada.
When considering the future of laws on cannabis, Lickver emphasizes that the regulatory aspect must not be taken lightly. “Regulating distribution, and ensuring that those who are licensed to sell it and produce it are the only ones doing it, without creating monopoly, [and] also creating fair access to everybody who wants to get involved,” he says. “That’s probably the biggest problem.”
If the system is regulated properly, Lickver foresees overwhelmingly positive results. Particularly, he views regulation as a way to reduce the influence of the black market.
“I think black markets will always exist, [but] the better the system we implement, the smaller the black market will become,” Lickver says. “If we implement a system that restricts access, or prices it out of regular consumers’ range, then those are two things that the black market has an advantage [on] right now… If we can tackle those two large issues and make sure that it’s affordable, and people can access it easily, then I don’t see a massive need for the black market, at least to serve the domestic population in Canada.”
[pullquote]“I think black markets will always exist, [but] the better the system we implement, the smaller the black market will become.”[/pullquote]
For medical purposes
As the director of Canadian Cannabis Clinics, Levy has worked with patients that have a vast array of physical and mental health problems. Cannabis has been used to alleviate symptoms of a number of different conditions, including pain-related ailments, neurological conditions, spasticity disorders, cancer- and chemotherapy-related pain, and epilepsy.
The typical medical marijuana patient at the clinic is in their late 40s or early 50s, suffers from a chronic health condition, and comes in for treatment having little to no prior knowledge of cannabis.
“Because we screen patients carefully to ensure recreational drug users are not getting prescriptions, the people you see in our waiting rooms are absolutely not the type of people you’d expect to see in a cannabis clinic,” Levy explains. “They are your neighbours, brothers, sisters, [and] parents.”
Jenny outlines the many ways in which cannabis has helped her cope with lifelong physical and mental health problems. Throughout her life, she has had problems with insomnia, which significantly effected her memory, attention, and cognitive skills. Jenny went through counseling every year of her life and lagged three grades behind her classmates in literacy. Later in her life, marijuana became an unexpected solution to her problems.
“I found myself using marijuana for recreational purposes but accidentally discovered that eliminated my life-long insomnia,” Jenny says. “I told my doctor that marijuana helped me to sleep soon after I discovered its effects and she advised me to continue using it as sleeping aid. She told me that sleeping pills are highly addictive and cause short-term memory loss, so she never prescribed them to me. I have used marijuana every day since she suggested I continue.”
Serena also says that medical marijuana has helped her cope with her physical ailments. “I have a severe back issue acknowledged by doctors, and the use of cannabis is very effective for my pain management as well as stress,” she says.
Yet cannabis is also associated with negative side effects, particularly in youth and chronic users. According to a recent CAMH study, an estimated 380,000 Canadians are affected by abuse of or dependence on cannabis, and between 76,000 and 95,000 people each year receive treatment for cannabis-related health problems.
Other risks related to cannabis use include psychological and mild physical dependence, an increased risk of developing respiratory problems and lung cancer, and the impairment of memory, attention, and complex processing. These complications are associated with heavy use, particularly by those under 25 years of age.
Polly can relate to these complications. “The reality is that whether it’s vapour, cigarette smoke, or weed, it’s smoke inhalation, which is bad for your lungs,” she says. “I have chronic bronchitis as a result of my relatively brief stint with marijuana, and because marijuana is illegal, the awareness is pretty low. People assume that because it’s not a cigarette, it’s not bad for you.”
Dr. Tomas Paus, senior scientist at the Rotman Research Institute and Tanenbaum chair in population neuroscience and professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Toronto, has extensive experience studying the impact of drugs on the brain.
When comparing cannabis, alcohol, and tobacco, Paus states it is “very clear that all three have an impact on health.”
Paus is concerned about the potential association between chronic cannabis use and the risk of psychosis, particularly in relation to schizophrenia.“It’s clear that the acute effects of cannabis in certain individuals, even just smoking pot, can induce psychotic symptoms,” he explains.
Referring to a report his team published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) of Psychiatry in 2015, Paus explains how irregularities in brain structure were observed in young men who had experimented with cannabis before the age of 16, and that they demonstrated an increased risk of developing schizophrenia. These findings are congruent with several similar studies performed within the field.
Paus cautions against simplifying the association between marijuana use and schizophrenia though. “It’s not that cannabis causes schizophrenia. There are so many different reasons why someone develops schizophrenia, both in the genes and the environment of that person, stressful events,” he says. “Cannabis is one contributing factor in some people.”
The causal relationship between cannabis use and the development of schizophrenia is also unclear, because it is possible some patients may actually seek out cannabis to cope with the troubling symptoms of emerging psychosis.
The risks of excessive use cannot be ignored though. Levy states that, while it is virtually impossible to overdose on cannabis to the point of death, many users are hospitalized due to anxiety attacks or mental health issues resulting from excessive use.
“[The] risk [of overdose] is magnified when edibles and other extracts are available, as these products have much higher concentrations,” Levy says. “Because the plasma levels of THC are less predictable when using edibles or extracts, the likelihood of taking too much increases.”
As part of the legalization process, the government must focus on educating the public about the potential risks of cannabis and encourage responsible and mindful use. In order to do this effectively, Paus says that the government can adopt strategies similar to those used to regulate alcohol and tobacco, including public health campaigns and the education of medical professionals.
Of course, as Erickson points out, the medical marijuana industry is a bit of an anomaly compared to tobacco and alcohol. This is something that will have to be accounted for within the regulations.
Both Erickson and Paus caution against using a ‘one size fits all’ message in an attempt to scare away potential users, especially young people.
“Another challenge will be how much you actually have harm reduction education in the schools… All we’ve told them so far is that it’s really dangerous,” Erickson explains. “[Now] we have a stronger foundation to do harm reduction education when we say, ‘the product is there, you’ll have to make healthy choices, think about it.’ Not just ‘don’t do it.’”
Erickson says that most users of marijuana are likely to be responsible; the government will have to ensure they are not placing undue restrictions on users, who, for the most part, are responsible in their usage.
“For most substances subject to misuse, there will be a relatively small group that will get into trouble with them, and the majority will use responsibly,” she explains. “No one wants to be a drug addict and have their lives ruined. Most people will use in moderation.”
[pullquote]“No one wants to be a drug addict and have their lives ruined. Most people will use in moderation.”[/pullquote]
Eichgrun believes there should still be mechanisms in place to actively discourage retailers from selling to minors though. “There should be strict fines to any retailer who plays games,” Eichgrun emphasizes. “I don’t mean a slap on the wrist, I mean shut them down right away.”
Your move, Canada
As it stands today, the future of cannabis regulation remains uncertain. The tides are turning, and now it’s up to the government to follow through.
“Prohibition has been a very small blip on the timeline of reported cannabis usage,” Lickver says. “I think we are approaching the end of that, and there will be a global tipping point.”
“[Canada] had a very strong reputation for public health, for healthy cities, social determinants of health, [which] didn’t really jive with our pretty aggressive stance towards drug use,” Erickson explains. “I think now, we’re getting back in sync.”
From multiple perspectives, the forecast for the new regime is overwhelmingly positive. The good news for current users is that this may finally result in widespread recognition of the positive effects cannabis can have on health.
“My family recognized the positive changes marijuana brought to my life and began to encourage my [use of] it,” explains Jenny, recalling the substantial change in perspective from those around her. “Witnessing the level of success I was reaching inspired their shift in attitudes – prior to my use, they were against any drug.”
“When we first started, it was illegal to talk about cannabis,” explains Ellins. “When the laws do change we expect to see an even more accepting society, that will no longer be looking over their shoulder for fear of repercussions.”
Overall, Lickver is optimistic about the project’s future trajectory. “In five years, I think we’ll have the best-regulated marijuana legislation and economy in the world, producing the highest quality product,” he predicts. “I believe that we as Canadians, the federal government, the provincial government, will not rush this, and will work slowly and create a cohesive system.”
Yet, it is clear that the government has extensive work to do in order to adequately address some of the more concerning aspects of regulation. This will be a meticulous and time-consuming process, if they wish to be successful.
While comprehensive legislative change may take several years, cannabis culture shops show no sign of closing, and students will continue to light up. The law is often slow to catch up to society’s reality. For now, we wait.
*Name has been changed at the individual’s request.
Correction (April 5th, 2016): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Dr. Patricia Erickson is an adjunct professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Toronto. In fact, she is a professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Toronto.