Barrelling into Station 420

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Legal marijuana is coming up fast. Are we ready? Depositphotos

Canadians are the giddy but scared riders on the federal government’s fast-moving train headed towards cannabis legalization. Yes, Station 420 is only months away and the conductor and staff are trying to learn how to drive without slowing down.

A great outline for an action movie. But a bad outline for a government plan.

There’s no skirting around the fact that the subject of legalization invokes a lot of controversy and dissenting views. There’s also no skirting around the fact that there are a lot of unknowns, and many of the known facts are going to be complicated and impacted by regulations imposed by the provinces, the distribution networks, the supply chain as a whole, and ultimately the price.

While a few jurisdictions have tested these green waters, the data coming back is fraught with caveats. All sides of the discussion have used examples from Alaska, Colorado, and elsewhere, but caution should be used in citing these case studies. For example, Alaska has reported that legalization had a negligible impact on reducing people’s dependency on the black market. But producers in that state have struggled to get licensed, so supply is sorely lacking. Without adequate supply, the prices have skyrocketed; retailers are forced to charge four to six times the rates charged in Colorado.

Meanwhile, reports in Colorado show a large increase in the number of intoxicated individuals, including tourists and transient people. Alongside this, a larger than usual number of people are moving into the state, putting a strain on the social and justice services. This, too, should be taken in context. By being among the first states to legalize marijuana, Colorado has become a pot oasis for those who wish to partake. As additional jurisdictions join Colorado, these numbers will likely normalize. After all, if many other cities had a strip of high-end casinos, would Las Vegas still be the destination it is?

Some people argue that government-sanctioned sales will starve the black market, including organized crime. This is both true and false. Yes, there will be a movement away from some street dealers, but the market for underage pot smokers will still need to be filled. And we need to recognize that what we term the “black market” isn’t all organized crime and hardened criminals. Due to decades of marginalization, a large piece of the current illegal supply is taken up by pot advocates and small-time producers. Much like heirloom tomato growers, some of these have customers who will continue to buy from them. Whether it’s because of the organic nature of the production, the use of heirloom varieties, or the original anti-establishmentarianism that spawned their initial use, no amount of fancy packaging will divert this market of loyal users.

Is this a question of wrong or right, black or white? No. To continue with the status quo would bring its own set of challenges, such as straining a judicial system that’s already bursting. But change won’t solve everyone’s problems, either, and in fact it may create some new ones.

What we need to do is slow down enough to be prepared. Whenever we approach large change, the way we implement it determines our success. Can we learn from the success and failures of other jurisdictions? Can we do this while preparing ourselves for potential problems and taking steps to minimize (not eliminate) their impact?

Ultimately, this may require a delay—or perhaps a phased implementation. This train is already too far down the road, so a phased implementation is likely the best solution. This could, for example, allow production to ramp up to avoid supply issues.

Unfortunately, our premier has  opted to turn over the no-win decision about whether to allow retail sales to the 137 municipal councils in this province, adding much uncertainty. Leaving the this decision to local councils is a way of passing off the political hot potato and a recipe for ineffectiveness. 

We require clarity, and our leaders need to stop with their manoeuvring and look for a plan that will result in a net decrease to our society’s problems. Perhaps along the way they can plan for ways to spend the new tax revenues to further reduce the strains on our system.

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