Stirring the Pot: Marijuana is Legal, Now What?

Dispensing some nuggets of wisdom to navigate the legalization of cannabis in Canada.

As of October 17, medical and recreational marijuana alike are officially legal across Canada. Following Uruguay as only the second country to legalize marijuana at the federal level, the practical details of how this legalization is implemented have been largely left to the discretion of the individual provinces and territories. This leaves a few grey areas and nuances to figure out, but with plenty of budding potential and joint progress from the federal and local governments, we are getting the green light on weed. So, what does this mean? What will change? Montreal will not be turning into Amsterdam anytime soon, so let’s break apart some of the rules, regulations, and opportunities set in place by this major decision.

Let’s Roll: What’s Legal Now?

The recent passing of Bill C-45, or the Cannabis Act, means that anyone above the legal age per province in Canada is now eligible to purchase fresh or dried cannabis, cannabis oil, and plants for cultivation from a federally licensed producer known as a dispensary (more on that later). While the 30-gram limit is applied to public spaces, including personal vehicles, users are permitted to keep up to 150 grams at home. Quebec is one of two provinces (the other being Manitoba) that forbids the cultivation of marijuana plants at home, but the going rate for the rest of the provinces is up to four plants permissible for cultivation in private residences. Commercially packaged edibles will be available for purchase in the Fall of 2019, roughly a year after legalization.

Dispensaries with a license to sell weed are on the rise. In Quebec alone, 150 cannabis stores are expected to be in operation by 2020. Here is how it will work: most people are familiar with the SAQ, or Société des alcools du Québec, the provincial crown corporation in Quebec responsible for selling alcoholic beverages. What we are looking at now will essentially be a SAQ of weed, more specifically, the SQDC - Société Québécoise du Cannabis. As a subsidiary of the SAQ, the SQCD will be the only legal seller of recreational cannabis in Quebec and will source cannabis from a number of large-scale growers that operate within the legal cannabis system. Sales will be carried out by these new stores and an online store that will be operational from the time of legalization. According to CBC news, marijuana is expected to cost a little over $6 a gram from these provincial retailers, with the idea being that consumers will turn away from the black market of cannabis, diverting customers and dollars to a taxed market.

With the new concept of a tax on the legal sale of marijuana and the reality that SQDC stores will not be on every corner, it will be interesting to see if dealers are actually wiped out in one fell swoop. This change is coming at a time when there is a steady increase in the amount of Canadians using cannabis. Statistics Canada says that use of marijuana has doubled since 1985, and in 2015, 28% of young adults aged 18-24 admitted to having used it. There is certainly a niche market that has been served by the black market up until now. Some experts predict that the legalization plans might perpetuate incentive to buy illegally as the products offered legally may not be of the same quality. Neil Boyd, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University, told the Montreal Gazette that with only a few outlets, the supply will not meet the high demand of consumers. Although $6 a gram might seem relatively inexpensive, many drug suppliers sell 3.5 grams at a lower per-gram price, and in general, offer lower prices for bulk purchases. The demand to produce a competitively cheap product is coupled with the need to make a better quality product, and that is an issue that is being considered by professionals in the business.

On the other hand, legal retail sales have the appeal of products that are grown in accordance with regulatory standards, banning certain pesticides and addressing concerns such as lacing, mould, or any unsafe or unhealthy coefficients. People who prefer to make smart and educated decisions about the products they buy might be willing to overlook the cost and take advantage of having a more open and transparent conversation about marijuana. Some say the legalization is an opportunity to ask licensed professionals about differences in strains, and the different effects they might have; those who do not respond well to marijuana can ask for advice on what specific kinds of marijuana might be more suitable. If nothing else, this legalization helps reduce the taboo and stigma that is strongly associated with smoking weed, and, in turn, creates a safe space for a healthy and educational conversation.

To Be Blunt: Regulations & Restrictions

Let’s talk about what is at stake if you venture outside of the regulatory limits. If you are caught with any amount of marijuana exceeding 30 grams in a public space, you can face up to five years in prison. While adults may share cannabis with each other, selling marijuana without a license, even to other adults, results in fines up to $5,000 or up to 14 years in prison. Providing a minor with any amount of cannabis, whether that be a monetary exchange or not, will result in the same charges. Alana Klein Associate Professor in the Faculty of Law at McGill, is well versed in cannabis policy pedagogy and has put forth work on this very issue, claiming that the government’s reliance on criminal jurisdiction is so heavy-handed that it perpetuates some of the harms of criminalization. While the law is lifting criminal restrictions on cannabis, as well as abolishing minimum sentences for cannabis offences, it is simultaneously raising maximum penalties in response to cannabis-related offenses, perhaps disproportionately to the charge. She mentioned that these penalties will have far-reaching implications, and specifically immigration consequences for both permanent residents and foreign nationals convicted of offenses under the Cannabis Act, as they will be refused entry on the grounds of serious criminality.

When it comes to penalizing for driving under the influence of marijuana, that is where things get dicey. There is no official government-approved roadside testing technology for marijuana impairment. According to a 2017 survey in Health Canada there is also no current consensus on the amount of time it takes to be able to drive safely after consuming cannabis. A recent McGill study found that driving-related performance was compromised as much as five hours after smoking. The lines are clear-cut for alcohol as it is metabolized at a standard rate, whereas THC can affect users differently and to different degrees depending on age, genetic background, and size, the method of ingestion, and history or frequency of use. The current method of investigation as stipulated by Bill C-46 of the Canadian Criminal Code is for police to demand a driver provide an oral fluid sample, or a saliva sample if they have any suspicion that the driver might be impaired by drugs. A driver who has a blood level of more than five nanograms of THC will face hefty penalties. Quebec has proposed a zero-tolerance policy in which police are allowed to arrest anyone who fails a roadside saliva test and immediately suspend their license for 90 days. Some experts say that these roadside urine and blood tests are not reliable in this case because individuals who use marijuana regularly can sometimes yield positive results on these types of tests. On the other hand, it is feasible for a driver to fail a saliva test despite not being impaired, especially with the possibility of inhaling second-hand marijuana smoke. Implementation of preventative and regulatory measures have been escalated so that if the driver fails a roadside sobriety test, specially trained police called “Drug Recognition Experts” (DREs) may demand a 12-step drug recognition evaluation to detect impairment, including the examination of a driver’s eyes, attention, blood pressure, and pulse.

First offenders found to be driving while impaired are subject to a minimum fine of $1,000, a minimum of 20 days imprisonment is imposed for the second offense, and a minimum of 120 days is precedent for any subsequent offenses. These penalties steepen with the subsequent infractions; if a driver injures or kills anyone in direct correlation to driving high, they may face up to 14 years of life behind bars, equivalent to that of distributing to minors. This means impaired driving offenses are now also considered to be under the category of “serious criminality” in Canadian law, so permanent residents in Canada charged with even a single impaired driving offense could, likewise, potentially face deportation, and convicted natives may be denied re-entry into the country.

While some provinces allow licenses to smaller retailers to act as private cannabis distributors, Quebec is not one of them, and pre-existing smoking accessory stores are actually facing further cutbacks in what they are allowed to sell. The government is working hard and fast to secure laws that ensure stability in the new legalized industry, and as such, cannabis is being treated more like tobacco than alcohol. Under the new law, it is illegal for smoking accessory stores in Quebec to sell any secondary cannabis accessories branded with the cannabis leaf. The federal legislation is focusing on these advertising restrictions to avoid the normalization of cannabis use in the midst of its decriminalization. According to CTV news, retailers can face from $5,000 up to approximately $62,500 for violating these regulations, and this can be doubled upon the second offense. Health guidelines in Canada are stipulating that packaging of marijuana products is obligated to provide a complete and transparent list of information including the name of the producer, the name of the marijuana strain, its specific THC/CBD content, and a disclaimer about the risks associated with smoking weed.

This is frustrating for local retailers who are used to carrying and profiting from cannabis-related merchandise. Christopher Mennillo, Vice President of the popular smoking accessory retail chain Prohibition, sees this as a step back as far as true legalization goes. Not only do these rules affect the income of retailers, but they also impact the culture of the cannabis industry. In response, Prohibition is working on a custom coalition to contest these laws - not necessarily on a commercial level, but rather from the vantage point of freedom of expression.

“There is an obligation to support not only the community but legalization itself; it is not going in the direction it should be, and we want to stand up for particular rights so future generations should not have to suffer,” Mennillo said. However, the venture to do so comes at a cost - and a steep one at that. Mennillo said that the legal fees to contest the law are looking to be around $200,000,“ To even want to spend that money, we believe we have a good chance of winning,” Mennillo said. “These implications are quite astronomical; people do not realize how much it’s taking a toll on the industry.”

While the main preoccupation of local retailers is focused on contesting the laws that fail to fully embrace or support the culture of cannabis, Mennillo anticipates that the legalization will mean an increase in sales. He expects that there will be an influx of new consumers jumping on the marijuana bandwagon, consisting of individuals who had previously stayed at arm’s length from cannabis due to the common advertisement and perception of cannabis as a true “drug.”

Weed it and Weep: Political Consequences

The decriminalization of marijuana is more politically relevant today than ever, with a large government incentive behind the legalization being an acute recognition of the system injustice of incarceration rates for pot-related charges in Canada. Black and indigenous people are consistently disproportionately imprisoned even for minor drug offenses; with cannabis being legal, this dimension of inequality is anticipated to be solved. With Prime Minister Trudeau being a prominent face behind this motive, there is tremendous pressure on him to take the next step and grant complete amnesty to those convicted of pot-related offenses now that the drug is legalized. So far the consensus of the government is consideration of amnesty for simple possession charges, but it remains firm in its policy of not pardoning anyone convicted of drug trafficking.

Over on international waters, things are lighting up in reaction to Canada’s federal legalization. Marijuana still remains illegal at the federal level in the United States, despite the fact that some states have passed the bill to legalize it recreationally. The U.S. border patrol, which is recently notorious for questionable detainment practices, is cracking down on admission for entry. Border agents maintain the right to deny passage to anyone they suspect of participating in the use, production, or distribution of marijuana anywhere in the U.S., including in the states where it is technically legal. Now that it is legal in Canada, recreational consumption alone will no longer be grounds for U.S. border agents to refuse admission to the country. However, they can revoke entry to anyone who is found to have used or possessed marijuana prior to the end of prohibition in Canada and can permanently ban Canadians if they suspect a professional connection to the legal and legitimized marijuana industry.

Higher Education: What does this Mean for McGill?

Canadian Universities have the autonomy to declare specific policies for on-campus cannabis use. Some have already decided to impose blanket bans on smoking both cannabis and tobacco. As for McGill, the university maintains an interim policy that is in effect concurrently with legalization until it is ultimately replaced with a more permanent one. Following in the footsteps of its smoke-free campus initiative that was enacted this past year, it currently states that not only smoking but ingesting or consuming cannabis in any form (including vaping, edibles, etc.) will not be permitted on campus. People of legal age will be permitted to have marijuana on them, within the constraints of the legal regulations. As in line with Quebec laws, the only place marijuana possession is prohibited in entirety is areas with children, such as the grounds of childcare centers, schools, or camps. Otherwise, you can carry legal amounts in the interior or exterior of campus buildings, but, the smoking, selling, growing, and any forms of cultivation or distribution are prohibited. For more information on McGill’s policy, you can read their guidelines here.

This legalization is without a doubt, a historic and progressive move by the government. The media has been closely following the laws as they have been pieced together by the government, and where media has been, attention has followed. The news of the legalization is a hot topic right now but everyone I have asked feels as though not much will change. It will be interesting to see how the trajectory of legalization unfolds, but there is definitely some budding potential.

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