About 75 years ago, parliamentarians sounded the alarm over an emerging “menace” — marijuana — that if left unchecked, could have “far-reaching, poisonous and demoralizing effects” on the country’s youth, according to debate records.
A front-page Globe and Mail article from 1937 said the “narcotic evil” had the potential to cause insanity and turn “quiet, respectable youths into raving murderers.”
How far we’ve come.
Today, marijuana is accepted as a medical treatment. Stores peddle all forms of paraphernalia, from ganja party games to bong cleaners. And some groups are lobbying to end pot prohibition altogether.
Even though the Harper government remains firmly opposed, the pro-legalization movement has picked up some allies in recent weeks. A majority of Liberal party delegates voted to support legalization at their convention and four former attorneys general in British Columbia came forward to declare prohibition a “failure,” joining groups of police officers, provincial health officers, academics and politicians who’ve done the same.
A trending topic on Twitter last week was #IfWeedWereLegal.
But it’s not all high-fives and hookah parties on the pro-legalization front. Activists acknowledge deep divisions within the movement over what the best post-prohibition model should be.
Should there be heavy government restrictions on production, distribution and consumption, or a hippie-dippy free-for-all? Control in the hands of a few or open to everyone?
“There is a lot of division among activists regarding what model should replace prohibition. Many relationships have been strained because of it, too, unfortunately,” said Vancouver activist Jodie Emery, wife of the “Prince of Pot,” Marc Emery. “Even some of my own friends and I strongly disagree about where to go from here.
“It’s a cannabis conundrum.”
There are a lot of things members of the movement agree on.
They concur that prohibition has failed because it has created a black market, overrun by violent gang members and because the drug’s availability and consumption — including among teenagers — has not fallen, despite billions of dollars spent on enforcement.
They agree that legalization is a better way to go because police resources would be freed up to deal with more serious crimes and that it would boost tax revenues.
They firmly reject doomsday scenarios trotted out by the anti-legalization crowd. No, there won’t be a sudden decline in workplace productivity. No, park benches won’t be suddenly awash with people high on dope.
Sure, there might be a bit of a spike in consumption at the beginning.
Vapour lounges and Netherlands-style cannabis cafes could open up, as well as schools offering pot-entrepreneur and cultivation classes. No doubt, there will be growth in secondary and tertiary industries, such as vaporization-device manufacturing and “bud and breakfasts.”
But day to day, the average citizen won’t see all that much difference, activists say.
“I don’t think that things would change that much on the street,” said Eugene Oscapella, an Ottawa lawyer and member of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. “People will smoke, eat a little more than now and will be a bit more visible, but . . . it is primarily about pulling back the curtain than creating a new play.”
Stephen Easton, a professor of economics at Simon Fraser University, who has studied the subject, agrees.
“While it may become popular, it will share the consumption spectrum with all our other intoxicants and be relegated to one vice among many. Legal and widespread, but hardly dominant,” he said.
But what our society will look like if pot becomes legal — and how visible marijuana will be — will depend to a large extent on what sorts of regulations lawmakers impose. And within the pro-legalization movement, members are all over the map when it comes to which blueprint is best.
Vancouver activist David Malmo-Levine, who many years ago, fought the constitutionality of prohibition laws all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada and lost, envisions a marijuana industry modelled after the wine industry in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley — lots of commercial growers of varying sizes, producing hundreds of varieties.
A post-prohibition world, he says, has to be one that is inclusive, doesn’t deny consumers a variety of choices of strains and potencies, and doesn’t push aside companies and private citizens who want a piece of the commercial pie, he said.
“This is of value to those who wish to reduce unemployment and share the wealth,” he said. “I want a ma-and-pa-friendly form of legalization.”
It’s fine to want to spread the wealth, says legalization supporter Line Beauchesne, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa. But you also need stringent regulations to ensure the quality of the product.
Her main concern? Big companies — with deep pockets — will try to lobby the government to water down regulations. Look at the example of big tobacco, she said.
“The tobacco industry showed us that a plant can be totally transformed to enlarge the clientele and transformed to create a more addictive drug.”
A similar debate exists over how marijuana should be distributed. While some activists, such as Malmo-Levine, favour making licences available to everyone, others say restrictions are needed.
Beauchesne thinks marijuana only should be sold through government-run drug stores. That’s the best way to prevent access to children and to ensure proper training for vendors, she said.
Mark Haden, a Vancouver author and educator on drug policy, prescribes an even more restrictive model. He envisions government-run apothecaries that are hospital-clean with a low-key street presence. Advertising would be banned, and so would any form of branding on product packages.
In the U.S., where 16 states now allow some form of medical marijuana, some dispensaries have reportedly turned to bikini-clad models and buxom “budtenders” in newspaper ads and YouTube videos to draw attention to their weed-related wares.
Marijuana is not something that should be glamorized, Haden said. In fact, the goal should be to make marijuana look as “boring” as possible.
Like prescription pill bottles, marijuana packaging should provide plain information about concentration, dosage and strain, and warning labels to not smoke and drive.
“Our history with alcohol is problematic as alcohol is a branded product which is advertised and glamorized. We receive many contradictory messages about alcohol, based on the different agendas of the different players,” he said.
“Having an apothecary model would allow for a fresh start without contamination of the pro-consumption model.”
But Toronto activist Matthew Mernagh, who favours distribution of marijuana through outlets modelled after provincial liquor stores (instead of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, there could be a Cannabis Control Board of Ontario, for instance), said he is not opposed to product branding or advertising.
In fact, Mernagh, who is in the midst of a court battle over the country’s medical-marijuana laws, said one day he would love to mass-produce a strain of marijuana and market the heck out of it.
“We’d probably put my face on it,” he laughed, adding that his TV ads could be modelled after Russell Oliver, the Toronto cash-for-gold business owner known for running cheesy, low-budget commercials.
“If you can’t have fun with marijuana on some levels, it’d make my life miserable,” he said.
But Mernagh added that some profits could bere-directed to drug awareness and media literacy campaigns.
One illustration of how heated the debate within the legalization movement could get was seen in 2010. Californians were voting on a historic ballot measure that would allow individuals to possess and grow small amounts of marijuana and local governments to tax and regulate the drug’s cultivation and sale.
Jodie Emery flew to Oakland, the epicentre of the Proposition 19 initiative, to rally supporters, excitedly telling people that visitors to the state could soon “Go to Disneyland” and “Go to a cannabis cafe.”
But back in Vancouver, fellow activist Malmo-Levine was using social media to denounce the initiative, calling it “fake legalization.”
Malmo-Levine says he opposed the measure because it would have placed too many restrictions on who could grow and distribute marijuana. Instead of “legalization for all,” it would’ve been legalization for a “lucky few.”
His comments didn’t sit well with other activists, who called him a “turncoat” and a “traitor.” Some even suggested he was opposed to Prop. 19 because he was making money in the black-market economy.
There are a raft of other issues that lawmakers will have to decide if Canada ever pursues legalization: What environmental regulations should be imposed on cultivation? What should the tax rate be? What age restrictions should be imposed? Should personal grows be allowed? What restrictions should be imposed on outdoor and indoor use? How do we deal with the potential influx of “narco tourists?” And should we erase the criminal records of those previously convicted of pot possession?
No doubt, the transition to a post-prohibition world will be slow, and there’ll be lots of experimentation between provinces, experts say.
“I don’t mind being initially strict on it out of an abundance of caution,” and then maybe easing up over time, said Oscapella, the Ottawa lawyer.
Emery admits she’s torn. She understands the point of view of “old-school” activists who want limited regulation. At the same time, she realizes that the only way prohibition is going to be lifted is if grassroots activists work with “establishment” types to reach a solution, which may mean they don’t get everything they want at the beginning.
“We’re not going to legalize by holding 4-20 rallies every year,” she said, referring to the annual holiday when pot lovers gather to celebrate cannabis.
Serving a five-year sentence in the U.S. for selling marijuana seeds online, Emery’s husband, Marc, via email, echoed the need for accommodation from all sides.
While he still believes the ideal model of legalization is one with “no controls” on who may cultivate and distribute cannabis or how much they can grow, he also recognizes that progress in politics is incremental.
“So, we chip away at the absolute prohibition in whatever way is politically feasible,” he said.
Of course, wouldn’t it be ironic if, after all the effort to make legalization a reality, no one bothered to smoke it anymore, one Twitter poster hypothesized last week.
“No fun in doing something you can’t get in trouble for, right?”
– Article from The Ottawa Citizen.