On Oct. 17, 2018, Canada became only the second country in the world, after Uruguay, to legally allow adults to grow, purchase, possess, and consume cannabis. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government had three primary goals: :
- Protect public health and safety (make cannabis accessible only to adults 21 years old and older).
- Regulate the market to promote sales and discourage illegal options.
- Provide equity and social justice to repair damage to disadvantaged communities.
Daniel Bear, a criminal justice professor at Humber College in Toronto, has extensively studied the cannabis legalization movement.
“From a public health perspective, things are working great,” said Bear. “You’ve got tested, safe, regulated products, and you’ve got methods other than combustion that people can access easily. Thanks to governmental oversight, Canada avoided the vape-lung crisis which struck the US in late 2019.”
Just as buying liquor in New Hampshire or Pennsylvania requires going to a state-owned store, Canadian marijuana sales used to go through a state-owned merchant. After years of strict regulations that limited how many private businesses could sell cannabis, a changeover in Canadian political parties has revised that policy. Ontario lifted a cap on retail stores, and the market has expanded from 25 stores to over 1,000 where adult Canadians can purchase various compliant containers filled with tested, safe, and potent marijuana.
But while the government was constricting retail capacity, it was simultaneously creating a supply boom. Massive greenhouses and grow operations produced more cannabis than the market would bear. Many companies went bankrupt, laying off hundreds of people and creating huge losses for publicly traded companies and their shareholders, red ink that has yet to be balanced.
“A mix of greed and naiveté led this industry to great heights – and has left it on its knees,” said cannabis consultant Alastair Moore. “While some made lots of money, others lost their investments, and now many others have lost their jobs.”
“There’s a billion dollars added to the GDP; there’s tens of thousands of people employed. From a commercial perspective, things are working,” said Professor Bear.
Before becoming Trudeau’s point man for legalization, Bill Blair was the Toronto Chief of Police. When legalization came to Canada, Blair was concerned about child safety and product safety. He seemingly had less interest in social justice and the people he used to jail for marijuana-related offenses.
“No one said, ‘Oh, and by the way, we screwed over people for the better part of a century, and they were disproportionately nonwhite, let’s make sure they’re empowered or have the harm done to them reduced,'” said Bear.
Blair did what too many law enforcement officials do: he created new laws that led to more unjust convictions. The punishment for giving marijuana to someone under 18 can be harsher than handing that same teen a beer. The procedure for obtaining a pardon for cannabis offenses is expensive and time-consuming. Only 400 out of 250,000 people have secured an acquittal.
Last year, two University of Toronto researchers, Akwasi Owusu-Bempah and Alex Luscombe, found Black, Latino, and First Nation people are still arrested for cannabis at rates much higher than white people.
“Canadian cannabis legalization lacks measures to redress the racialized harms caused by the war on drugs because the full extent of these harms remains largely unknown,” as Owusu-Bempah and Luscombe wrote.
Three years after legalizing cannabis in Canada, people can buy safe products from big companies, though many complain prices are too high, partially due to taxes. But those people who suffered for so long, generation after generation, continue to suffer and still don’t enjoy equal access to opportunity.