Cannabis legalisation in Canada has been back in the news a lot recently, with many prominent members of the country’s medical marijuana community expressing anger at the fact that the Liberal government, led by Justin Trudeau, appears to be reneging on its promise to introduce a regulated market and to stop criminalising Canadian citizens.
The well known activist Jodie Emery recently announced that she has quit the party in protest after she and her husband, Marc Emery, were arrested on their way to Spannabis in Barcelona and charged with drug trafficking, conspiracy, and possession.
The Emerys have pointed to comments made by Trudeau during his election campaign in which he appeared to promise to decriminalise cannabis “immediately” if elected:
In a March 15 interview with CKNW, the leader of the Liberal party told Gord MacDonald he would take immediate action to decriminalize the drug.
“Will you bring forth legislation to do that in the first session of Parliament when Justin Trudeau is prime minister?” MacDonald asked.
Trudeau’s response: “Yes, it is our intention to move on this in a very rapid fashion. I mean, there were some mistakes made south of the border that we can learn from about leaping before looking and thinking it through. But it is something we plan on moving on immediately.”
Emery also argues that the Prime Minister’s plans for a cannabis market will result in that market being monopolised by a handful of producers, at the expense of independent retailers such as herself and her husband, and their chain of dispensaries.
So what is the reality? Well, it is certainly true that Trudeau and the Liberal government seem to be taking a lot longer to implement the changes to the law than they initially promised. There is huge frustration and anger – understandably so – at the continuation of dispensary raids and arrests from a government who made decriminalisation and legalisation a cornerstone of their election campaign. However, Trudeau himself has been quite clear about why he wants to regulate. It’s not to please activists or make money. It’s not even primarily about ending criminalisation. For him, it’s all about the kids.
“The big reason we chose to commit to controlling and regulating marijuana,” Trudeau has said, “is to keep young people safe. Right now Canada has the highest use of marijuana by underage people in the developed world. We need to make sure we’re keeping our kids safe and keeping our communities safe by removing the black market and the criminal gangs and the street organisations from it.”
His logic is of course entirely sound. According to a report released in 2015 by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, which drew on a 2013 report by UNICEF, “Past year use by 15-year-olds in Canada was 28%, compared to less than 10% in Germany, Finland, Norway and Sweden.” In addition, it was found that the prevalence of cannabis use among young people in Canada is not simply down to socio-economic factors. Delva et al, 2014, found that use was lower in a working-class district of Santiago, Chile, than in Canada, for example. At age 14, only 3.7% of those surveyed in Santiago had used once or twice in the past year, and 0.4% had used 40 times or more, meaning that Canadian teen’s use of the drug is likely driven more by societal attitudes towards cannabis, and other drugs such as alcohol, among other things.
Naturally, one of the biggest drivers of use is availability. It is often argued by opponents of reform that regulated markets will make it easier for young people to obtain cannabis, however what the CCSA report shows is that Canadian youth currently have no problem at all in getting their hands on cannabis, despite its illegality. If 28% of 15-year-olds are already using, or have used in the past year, it’s a safe bet that the number of 15-year-olds who have been offered cannabis (including those who turned it down) is considerably higher. And when potentially over a third of 15-year-olds find it this easy to access a supposedly “controlled” substance, it’s pretty clear that the controls aren’t working. On the other hand, despite still being a considerable public health problem, alcohol – an actual controlled (i.e. regulated) drug – is far more difficult to get hold of. Applying similar restrictions to cannabis in order to bring down underage use is the rational choice.
This is why Trudeau wanted to legalise. Not to make money, but to protect the kids. As he said in a video released by The Canadian Press:
The fact is that if you tax it too much, as we saw with cigarettes, you end up driving things towards a black market which will not keep Canadians safe, particularly young Canadians. So yes there’s a potential for a bit of revenue on that, but we’re certainly not looking for a windfall, and it is certainly our thought that money that comes in should go towards addiction treatment and mental health support and education programmes, rather than financing general revenue. It was never about a money maker, it was always about public health and public safety.
The conflicts that have arisen, the perceived injustice of continued raids and the ‘betrayal’ of voters, is in actual fact then arguably more a case of Trudeau sticking to his guns and doing things the way he always intended to. Clearly things are moving slowly, but he never promised a free-for-all.
The problem is that for a significant and vocal section of the electorate, who voted for him on the basis of his promise to legalise, that isn’t good enough. For them, cannabis legalisation and wider drug policy reform is about so much more than just protecting children. Which isn’t to say, of course, that they don’t agree with Trudeau on that. They do. But they also saw legalisation as an opportunity to start businesses, create jobs, and for the state to reap the benefits in the form of tax revenue. They foresaw a future where a regulated market would lead to an expansion of the current, restrictive, medical marijuana programme. Where cannabis would become the legal equivalent of the already booming black market. For them, a government controlled, strictly regulated system is not what they voted for. But it is what Trudeau was promising.
The grievances of those who now feel betrayed are, however, understandable, and to some extent justified. It’s pretty inarguable that people shouldn’t still be getting thrown in jail for possessing or growing cannabis when the Prime Minister himself has promised that legalisation is coming. But what they shouldn’t be is surprised. They pinned their hopes on Trudeau and championed him, but the reality is that the version of legalisation they wanted to see was not what he was offering. They projected their idealised vision onto him, and he let them, because that’s what politicians do.
So yes, they’re right to be annoyed. But I don’t imagine for a second that Marc Emery – a committed capitalist and libertarian – was really and truly expecting a totally free market from the Liberals. He’s been around the block far too many times to have believed that. Which at the end of the day is the point – electing Trudeau is just the latest step in a long journey towards regulation, one which Emery and others have been on for decades. They will not stop protesting and agitating now simply because they elected their man and some form of regulation is on its way. And nor should they. But Trudeau will stick to his line, and will put together a system that first and foremost makes it more difficult for kids to get their hands on cannabis. After that, who knows. The future is unwritten.
Deej Sullivan is a journalist and campaigner. He regularly writes on drug policy for politics.co.uk, London Real, and many others, and is the Policy & Communications officer at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition UK. Tweets @sullivandeej