The success of Canada’s legalization of Cannabis

The fact that cigarettes were legal but caused cancer and cannabis was illegal but hadn’t been proven to cause cancer struck us as grimly ironic in the 1970’s. We quipped: “They’re waiting to find that cannabis causes cancer before they legalize it.”

graphic: Ben Kuypers

When we organized the lobby group, Alberta Legalization of Cannabis Committee (ALCC) in 1977, we thought legalization would be a romp.

After all, the injustice of criminalization was evident to everyone.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau wrote ALCC:

“Thank you for your January 6 letter. In 1974 we initiated in the Senate a cannabis bill, Bill S-19. The Senate passed it in June of 1975, and after that the House of Commons gave it first reading. The Commons, however, was unable to find the time to give the bill further attention; so it died on the order paper when the last session of Parliament ended (January 17, 1978).”

The leader of the opposition, Joe Clark wrote us:

“With respect to this issue, I feel strongly that the present law is not serving as a deterrent to the use of marijuana and is resulting in many young people carrying criminal records for what amounts to a social practice among their generation. (May 17, 1978).”

Regrettably, politicians of the day lacked the courage of their convictions.

It took 41 years before our vision of legal cannabis was realized. In 2015, the leader of a third-place party in 2015, Justin Trudeau, campaigned for the legalization of cannabis and won the election.

On October 17, 2018, Canada became the second country in the world to legalize recreational cannabis nationwide after Uruguay.

After waiting four decades, we didn’t celebrate much. Decriminalization seemed inevitable and the day was anticlimactic.

Kamloops was the first place in B.C. to have a government-run cannabis store. It was more glamorous than I had imagined. I thought of a more utilitarian store, not a place with posters telling of the various strains and stations where you could see and smell the product.

Kamloops’ first cannabis store is located in the Columbia Place Shopping Centre. It opened its doors at 10 a.m. with about 100 people waiting in line. Some people arrived as early as 2 a.m. “I’m just excited that we have a store finally,” the first person in line told Global News (Oct 17, 2018).

The sale of legal cannabis has increased slowly since legalization. According to the National Cannabis Survey in 2019, 47 per cent of respondents said they got their cannabis from a legal source. That figure rose to 68 per cent by 2020.

The number of users has not increased dramatically but the average age of first users increased, perhaps because older Canadians were curious to try it now that cannabis was legal.

Importantly, arrests for possession have decreased dramatically.

And, despite concerns from advocacy groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving who suggested that cannabis legalization would result in more traffic injuries and deaths, that hasn’t happened.

There is more to be done. Pardons for past cannabis arrests are slow and bureaucratic. Prohibition and criminalization of other drugs has been a disaster.

My blog with newspaper clippings and other documents of ALCC can be found at alccblog.wordpress.com.

It’s too late to decriminalize pot

Decriminalization of marijuana should have happened decades ago. Now it would only add to the confusion.

Marijuana users are caught in a legal limbo. The government intends to legalize marijuana before Canada Day, 2018, but until then it’s illegal. Then, like a light being switched on, what was once a criminal offence will not be.

Alberta Legalization of Cannabis Committee

Government intentions aside, police are going about their business. They arrested activists Mark Emery (the “Prince of Pot”) and his wife Jodie as reported by CFJC Today.

The Liberals have been dithering over decriminalization for decades and this Trudeau is no different. Pierre Trudeau could have decriminalized marijuana in 1979. Then Justice Minister Marc Lalonde was playing politics when he said that he would decriminalize it before the upcoming election if opposition parties would just fast track the legislation. He was doubtful that they would. “I’m not optimistic,” Lalonde said (Calgary Herald, Feb. 22, 1979).

The opposition parties took Lalonde up on his challenge, agreeing to fast tracking.  Both opposition leaders Joe Clark and Ed Broadbent sent me letters of approval for decriminalization. They were responding to letters I sent on behalf of the Alberta Legalization of Cannabis Committee. I helped organize the group in 1977.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau wrote me to explain how his government was trying to decriminalize marijuana. His government had initiated a bill in the Senate, Bill S-19, in 1974.”The Commons, however, was unable to find the time to give the bill further attention; so it died on the order paper when the last session of Parliament ended (January 17, 1978),” Trudeau explained.

In my letter to the Calgary Herald, I complained about Lalonde’s tardy pace: “Why does the government seem so reluctant to do what all agree must be done? If Lalonde wants us to believe that this is a demonstration of his government in haste, then it’s time to see what a new government in action; a government that will not fiddle while Canadians get burned (April 14, 1979).”

Lalonde had teased Canadians long enough with his promises of decriminalization. His government was defeated by Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservative Party in June 11, 1979.

Executive Assistant to Clark’s Minister of Justice wrote me: “Mr. Clark’s government is currently reviewing this and other issues with a view to formulating policies and setting priorities.” “Be assured, Mr. Charbonneau, that your comments will be given serious consideration by the Government as it continues its study of this important matter (Aug. 3, 1979).” However, Clark’s government didn’t last long enough to decriminalize marijuana.

A Globe and Mail editorial argues that the government should decriminalize marijuana before legalizing it because users are in legal purgatory: “Besides, there is no viable interim regulatory regime that could accommodate a quasi-legal retail market. But there is when it comes to personal possession. It’s called decriminalization.”

It’s too late for decriminalization. More legislation would only add to confusion. There is a simple solution –what the Dutch call “gedogen.” Police simply don’t enforce marijuana laws. Unlike the Netherlands, where the law has been ignored for 30 years, police only have to turn a blind eye for another year.

Legalize all drugs

Don’t use drugs. If these two statements seem contradictory, it’s understandable. Legalization is approval. And since drug abuse is a problem, why approve drug use?

The flaw in this argument is that drug abuse in not a legal problem, it’s a medical and social problem. It wastes lives and is a burden on our health care system; it destroys families; it consumes the time and resources of law enforcement agencies.

we want beer

Prohibition is a well-intentioned initiative but it doesn’t work. As we discovered in the case of alcohol prohibition, booze was simply driven into the hands of criminals and organized crime who waged war against rivals.

Warring cartels and gangs in Mexico alone killed 120,000 in the years 2006 to 2013. That’s forty per cent more deaths than all the deaths due to illegal drug use in the U.S. according to data from the Center for Disease Control.

Guns in Canada are a serious problem. In the same period (2006 – 2013) there were approximately 1500 gun homicides in Canada. Not exactly the carnage that Mexico is experiencing  but that’s not the point: just because guns result in death and injury, no sensible person would suggest making them illegal.

What does make sense is the regulation of guns. Gun owners must obtain a Possession and Acquisition Licence and renew it every five years. Education makes sense. As a general rule, applicants must have passed the Canadian Firearms Safety Course.

Tobacco in Canada is a serious problem. In the same period, 259,000 Canadians died due to tobacco-related diseases according to the Canadian Cancer Agency. Education has reduced the number of Canadians who smoke from fifty to less than fifteen per cent.

Politicians have agreed for decades that education is key to harm reduction. As one of the founding members of the Calgary chapter of the Alberta Legalization of Cannabis Committee in 1976, I received letters from all leaders.

In his letter, then leader of the opposition Progressive Conservative party Joe Clark wrote: “In my view, a drug education programme would be far more beneficial and economical in attacking the problem than using law enforcement agencies and the courts.”

NDP leader Ed Broadbent thought that marijuana should be removed from the Criminal Code and placed under the Food and Drug Act and added: “I would agree with your statement that it does not appear to have any worse impact than alcohol.”

Prime Minster Trudeau wrote that his Bill S-19, one that would remove marijuana from the Food and Drug Act, died on the order paper but his government was pursuing the bill. “[My government] is working to make certain the legislation we introduce strikes a proper balance between concerns over the personal and social effects of penal laws aimed at discouraging its use.”

Time has stood still for the last four decades. Regressive Canadian governments have preferred to pander to misconceptions such as the “war on drugs,” or “prohibition works.”

Meanwhile the U.S., a place we think of a bastion of conservative thought, has leapt ahead of Canada. Now some states, such as Washington, have legalized the sale of marijuana. I just returned from Seattle and didn’t notice any reefer madness in the streets.