If the Trudeau government lives up to its promise to introduce legal marijuana legislation in the spring of 2017, there are lots of questions about what a cannabis-friendly Canada will look like.
Where will product be available for purchase? What exactly will be for sale? Who can buy, and where can they smoke it? Part of what makes these questions so difficult to answer is that Canada is poised to do what few jurisdictions have done: legalize and regulate weed.
The US finds itself in a strange grey area: recreational pot is allowed in eight states but is still considered illegal under federal law. While Canada’s legalization won’t be as fragmented, we can still look to the states where pot is legal to see what’s working and what isn’t.
if the prime focus is on reducing the number of unsanctioned sales, Colorado’s the state to emulate
As one of the first to legalize recreational pot, Colorado is widely considered to be the most weed-friendly of the fifty states. Anyone 21 or older can buy cannabis products from a licensed dispensary, paying 28 percent tax on the product’s sale price. With a fairly relaxed approach to licensing, the number of dispensaries in the state had surpassed “Starbucks, McDonald’s and 7-Elevens combined” by the end of 2015. In Washington, anyone over 21 can purchase from a dispensary, but with a 37 percent tax on the sale price and a lower cap on retail licenses, it is a more restrictive system for consumers and sellers.
While it’s too early to fully analyze the successes and failures of Colorado and Washington, there are a few important factors worth considering.
Beating the black market
The Trudeau government has repeatedly stated that the main goal behind legalizing and regulating weed is to destroy the black market that makes weed readily available to underage users. Surprisingly, Colorado’s system looks like the better way to make selling illegal weed less lucrative. Colorado Public Radio reported in early 2016 on how the state’s black market was being affected by legalization, stating that 70 percent of marijuana sales came from licensed sources, compared to just 30 percent in Washington. The higher taxes and tighter restrictions on licenses may be more appealing to the greedy, bureaucratic side of the Canadian government, but if the prime focus is on reducing the number of unsanctioned sales, Colorado’s the state to emulate. Even if the black market dries up completely and underage users buy weed from someone who purchased it legally (the same problem exists with alcohol and tobacco products), at least these grey market transactions won’t be funding organized crime.
The edible dilemma
One of the biggest problems with legalization has come in the form of edibles. Chocolates, cookies, suckers and gummies containing THC are available for purchase alongside smokeable products in both Colorado and Washington. Edible pot seems like a great way for amateurs to get high, but eating weed means it gets metabolized by the liver, resulting in a more intense, longer lasting high. Because this high usually takes at least an hour to become apparent, many newbies find themselves accidentally overdosing and then having to endure several hours of an uncomfortable, potentially scary experience.
A year after Colorado began selling licenses to dispensaries, The Cannabist reported that poison control calls related to marijuana were up in both Colorado and Washington. While some people argue this statistic is thanks to an increased willingness to call authorities when weed is legal, edible products are far more likely to end up being over-used by adults or unwitting children. Since legalization, Colorado has passed laws about edibles, saying they must be individually packaged in a standard serving size and have labels with explicit warnings that don’t make the product look appetizing to children.
Fear of kids accidentally partaking, or extreme incidents like the shooting death of Kristine Kirk after her husband consumed an allegedly dangerous dose of edible cannabis, might make Canada decide to disallow edible sales altogether. But if these products are going to be sold in Canada, the government should start developing public education strategies to address the difference between ingested and inhaled pot.
Where can people get high?
When Colorado legalized weed, residents were suddenly faced with the strange quandary of being able to buy pot, but having nowhere outside of their homes to smoke it. Initiative 300, the social-use law that was passed by Denver in the 2016 election, will allow businesses other than private cannabis clubs to apply for a permit to allow marijuana consumption on site. For now, businesses with liquor licenses will be exempt from applying for a marijuana permit.
In Washington, smoking pot isn’t allowed in any public place, and you can receive a citation for doing so. Given Canada’s relatively strict laws about alcohol and cigarette consumption in public spaces, it’s likely that we’ll follow Washington’s example. Businesses becoming cannabis-friendly seems like an inevitable outcome of legalization, and it would be prudent for provincial lawmakers to start planning now for where people can smoke outside of their homes.
Canada must also decide its stance on pot tourism, which Colorado and Washington have dealt with very differently. The looser regulations in Colorado have allowed pot tourism to thrive, including cannabis friendly hotels, and organized excursions where guests get high and enjoy cooking classes, massages, or tour weed labs. In Washington, cannabis consumption is illegal on a business’ property or in a moving vehicle, so the tours that do operate can’t offer the same experience.
The economic case for promoting (or at least not actively discouraging) canna-tourism is strong. An estimated $100 million of Colorado’s 2015 pot sales (which totalled nearly $1B) came from tourists whose dollars would have also spilled over into the pockets of other businesses. The number of tourists to the state has reached record highs that are thanks to more than just pot, but its presence definitely isn’t hurting.
Canada will probably pursue a very slow, restrictive approach to legalization, but if the experiences of Colorado and Washington are applicable, a more open system will help meet government goals and be good for citizens.