After almost a century of prohibition, recreational use of marijuana will be legalized on Oct. 17
WATERLOO REGION — For 95 years, Canadians have lived in a country where cannabis was a controlled drug that could get them arrested, criminally charged and thrown in jail. That all changes next week.
On Oct. 17, legalization of recreational use will usher in one of the biggest policy shifts this country has ever seen. The implications for everything from policing to public health to the economy will be significant.
A lot has changed over the decades around public perception of cannabis — which the Record called a “narcotic weed, which generates a murder complex in many of its addicts” in 1938.
It wasn’t alone in its hysteria. During the Second World War, many Canadians believed marijuana could cause criminal behaviour and violent outbursts. The Record trumpeted a “war on marijuana,” even sending a reporter out with a police officer to help pluck patches of cannabis supposedly growing wild in downtown Kitchener.
Today, close to 70 per cent of Canadians favour legalizing recreational cannabis. The conversation has shifted from prohibition to promoting responsible use and public safety.
But on the eve of legalization, some of the biggest questions parents and public health researchers have are around the impact on youth under 19, who won’t be able to legally buy marijuana.
A landmark study of more than 65,000 Canadian high school students by University of Waterloo researchers suggests more teens are likely to try cannabis after it becomes legal.
“Once something like this becomes legal, it becomes more socially acceptable, and you’re going to see an increase in use,” said Scott Leatherdale, an associate professor in the School of Public Health and Health Systems who has been tracking cannabis use among youth since 2012.
With the connection between cannabis use and teenage depression, anxiety and poor school performance well-established, policy-makers should be watching closely to see how youth respond to this major social shift, he said.
“Once it’s legalized, I think you’ll see a bit of a spike in use. But after the novelty wears off, we’re expecting it will plateau a bit,” Leatherdale said.
It’s an important issue locally, as youth in Waterloo Region high schools use cannabis more regularly (30 per cent) than their Ontario counterparts (25 per cent), according to a new report by the Cannabis Working Group of the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council. The council argues more money needs to be spent getting to the root causes of youth substance abuse, beyond simply funding more education campaigns.
Access will not be an issue. About 60 per cent of teenagers in the University of Waterloo study already report that they could easily buy marijuana if they wanted to.
Legalization is only expected to make it even easier to get cannabis, Leatherdale said.
Canada will become just the second country in the world to legalize and regulate cannabis for adult recreational use, after Uruguay.
“This is an experiment that many other countries will be watching,” said David Hammond, a Waterloo professor who’s the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Public Health Agency of Canada Chair in Applied Public Health.
Canadians will need to get educated on how to use cannabis responsibly — understanding things like THC content and dosing, and how the vast array of marijuana products affect people differently, he said. People who might remember marijuana from their college days could be surprised by what’s on the market now.
“This is not your dad’s or your grandpa’s cannabis. The average potency has gone up about three times in the last 20 years,” Hammond said.
“The average consumer has no idea if 100 milligrams of THC is a tiny amount or a huge amount.”
He doesn’t expect the black market to vanish overnight, either — it’s far too established for that.
But in some U.S. states where legalization has been introduced, the illegal cannabis trade has shrunk to as little as 20 or 10 per cent of the market, he said.
A big factor will depend on how successful police are in cracking down on illegal dispensaries and online delivery services, Hammond said.
Waterloo Regional Police have been actively closing down those black market pot shops in recent months, and they say enforcing legislation surrounding the “safe supply of recreational cannabis” will remain a priority.
Police expect it will take some time for the public to adjust to the new world of legalized marijuana, particularly around limits on personal possession and public consumption.
“There will undoubtedly be an adjustment period as clarity surrounding legal and appropriate boundaries are better understood by all,” said Insp. Mark Crowell of the Waterloo Regional Police.
“The highest priorities will remain ensuring road safety and also enforcement surrounding the safe supply of legal recreational cannabis. Simultaneously, we will strive to ensure that cannabis remains out of the hands of children and youth.”
Waterloo Regional Police says it’s increasing the number of drug enforcement officers and RIDE programs while training more police to become “drug recognition experts” for roadside tests. It has 14 of those already on staff and plans to add more by the end of the year.
Another 304 front-line officers are trained in standardized field sobriety tests and able to recognize impairment by alcohol and drug use, Crowell said.
Enforcing road safety after Oct. 17 will be critical since impaired driving remains a leading criminal cause of death in Canada, Crowell said.
Canada’s licensed marijuana producers, meanwhile, have been busy ramping up production ahead of legalization. They’re not just trying to supply the domestic recreational market, but they also are trying to serve international buyers.
Kitchener-based producer James E. Wagner Cultivation is partnering with another company to launch a chain of retail pot shops across the province.
“We’re already hard at work,” said CEO Nathan Woodworth. “We’re trying to get this done as quickly as possible. But the legislation that’s coming out does not mean we have a clear understanding yet of what this is going to look like.”
While they wait for clarity on the rules, some producers are stockpiling cannabis, to the frustration of medicinal users who complain about shortages in online stores.
Other legal producers are scrambling to get their production up to full speed while eyeing rapid expansion plans, luring investment capital and going on hiring binges.
“Everybody is short on product ... It’s not just meeting the needs domestically. We’re also getting approached by international buyers,” said Buck Young, cofounder of CannTX, a Puslinch-based licensed producer.
“It’s not as easy as just ‘buy a greenhouse and start planting cannabis instead of green peppers.’ The whole regulatory process means that significant modifications need to be made to any building ... This has been a long journey.”
Kevin Neil trims cannabis plants as they grow under lights at James E. Wagner Cultivation in Kitchener.
Courtney Rochon, left, and Anthony Bauer compare cannabis leaves from plants that were grown using a different methods at James E. Wagner Cultivation in Kitchener on Thursday.