The debate on recreational cannabis has finally begun in earnest in the Canadian Senate after the Liberal government representative there and the Conservative Senate leader reached agreement on a final vote date, June 7, for Bill C-45.
A quick recap for international readers: The bill has already been passed by elected Members of Parliament in the House of Commons and was sent to the unelected senators to review and pass. But Conservative senators indicated they would take their time with it, and stall it for as long as possible on the orders of the Conservative leader in the House. Hence, there hadn’t been a lot of debate on the bill in the Senate since the bill was received there last November.
That the bill will pass is a foregone conclusion. There are enough senators there in favour. It might be amended, if the government accepts amendments. So, it is debatable whether the Senate process is simply ceremonial and a complete waste of time, or whether the senators can contribute to making it a stronger bill.
So, how is the debate going?
On the surface, it seems like the senators who have spoken on the issues so far are making a real effort, even if some journalists suspect that they are simply playing politics and trying to justify their cushy jobs as unelected senators for life. After all, the legalization of recreational cannabis is the top news story in Canada, and millions of people are watching the Senate very carefully.
Some senators are questioning what the legal age should be for consuming cannabis, and are concerned that young people under legal toking age will still buy cannabis on the black market. They also trotted out the old argument that cannabis is a gateway drug, and more kids will start using it and progress to harder drugs.
At the same time, they wonder if consumers will pay more for cannabis at a legal outlet than they would on the black market. On the other hand, some are worried that biker gangs and other elements of organized crime will be pouring money through offshore accounts into legal cannabis companies, thus laundering ill-gotten gains and having some control over the legal market.
And there is this one: A senator wondered if people might use drones to steal cannabis from outdoor farms. Don’t blame her for this question, though. The idea was planted in her brain by the CEO of a cannabis company, which grows indoors, and certainly seemed to me like a shot at the outdoor competition by taking a genuine news story and distorting it. It’s true that some people have been using drones to hunt for cannabis grow-ops and big stashes in indoor facilities. But once they find the stuff, the thieves break into the facilities — usually a home — and take it. The drones do not swoop in and scoop up the pot. But even if drones could be used like that, I’m sure big cannabis companies would be taking the necessary precautions. It was a red herring, and it made a lot of people chuckle . . . at the poor senator’s expense.
Will more kids start toking once pot is legalized, even if they can’t buy it legally? Personally, I wouldn’t expect a jump in the numbers. I suspect that most kids in Canada try cannabis at least once, and that many find it’s not for them. I don’t think it will be anymore of a gateway drug than it is now. I don’t think senators are giving kids enough credit and are ignoring the obvious: most kids are not hooked on hard or soft drugs, even though they have easy access to illegal cannabis now.
As for the black market, I don’t think it will be around much longer, especially if its main players are funding legal cannabis companies. So kids who do get their hands on pot will probably be getting the legal stuff, which is not such a bad thing if you consider the alternative. I mean, if they’re going to use it, would you prefer they get clean, legal pot or black market pot that could be contaminated and laced with any number of harmful substances such as embalming fluid, laundry detergent etc. (See report on substances used to lace pot.)
And that really is the most important reason why recreational cannabis is being legalized: to make sure it is clean. If at the same time former black market players become legal investors, that is a bonus because it will reform them — to a point.
As for the price of pot, yes, there will still be some black market growers. But aside from pricing, they can’t compete with legal retail outlets, which will be selling dozens upon dozens of strains with different THC levels. The black market dealer will have one product that may or may not be contaminated.
There are other issues to be debated, i.e. growing it at home, driving under the influence and law enforcement.
I suspect that the bill will be successfully amended to bar people from growing it at home. Indeed, two provinces have already said they will not allow people to grow it privately for several reasons, including it would be too difficult to police it and make sure people are not growing more than permitted, there would be no quality control, and a lot of landlords simply don’t want their tenants to grow it.
As for driving under the influence, police forces are learning to spot people driving while stoned on cannabis, and companies are hard at work developing drug-testing technology. The legalization of recreational cannabis will undoubtedly lead to more people getting caught while driving under the influence, but it won’t necessarily mean there are more drivers doing it. It will simply mean that law enforcement has gotten better at detecting it.
Over all, I don’t think the number of cannabis users will rise much in Canada. Certainly, a lot of people will want to check out the offerings once it starts being sold in retail outlets. But pot is not like booze. Smoking a joint is not the same as having a glass of wine. A joint will get you very stoned, and you’ll either like it or you won’t — and I would bet that the majority don’t want to get stoned very often, even if they support the principle of legalization, as in “live and let live.”
I don’t think cannabis sales will reach the levels some people are predicting, so the senators really shouldn’t worry too much about it.