From crime to health to business, Canada’s decision to legalize marijuana is a grand progressive experiment that promises to answer a host of questions
When Canopy Growth opened its first cannabis factory in an old chocolate plant near Ottawa four years ago, it did so predicting a bright future. Canada had already legalized medical marijuana, and Canopy predicted full legalization for recreational use to be next.
What the company hadn’t predicted, however, was the sudden flood of foreign visitors. Politicians and police authorities from Jamaica, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Greece and Australia have all come knocking, as well as doctors from New Zealand, Brazil and Chile, along with groups of corporate investors and bankers – so many that Canopy now sometimes splits up the groups according to their birthdays.
“We knew we’d have to give a lot of tours, so we just cut a window into the wall,” said the company spokesman, Jordan Sinclair. “We put windows in all of the doors.”
Canada will be thrust even more directly under the international microscope on Thursday, when a vote in the Senate is expected to ratify Bill C-45, effectively making Canada the first G20 nation to legalize recreational marijuana.
“It’s going to be a bit of a science fiction experience for a while,” said Benedikt Fischer, an expert on substance use at Toronto’s biggest psychiatric hospital. “It’s unique in the world, because it’s happening for the first time in a wealthy country. It’s not like in the US, where there are these state experiments. Most people kind of ignore Uruguay. And so the world is really looking at this.”
Governments, researchers and business leaders around the world all have their own reasons for keeping tabs. Legalization could affect Canada’s crime patterns, health and countless other factors – but exactly how, no one yet knows.
Each Canadian province plans to roll out its newly legalized market in a slightly different way, creating about a dozen mini-laboratories within one massive test case.
Even places that have already taken the legalization plunge are hoping Canada will solve some mysteries. After Colorado legalized marijuana five years ago, for example, organized crime reacted by ramping up supplies of “black tar heroin, opiates and harder drugs”, said Dr Larry Wolk, the state’s top public health official.
But Wolk says he is interested to watch that process unfold on a bigger scale in Canada, where the new law is expected to deal a much more significant blow to the black market. Any new mix of illicit drugs in the country could have new effects on public health.
“What’s the impact of marijuana legalization on the opioid crisis?” he asked as an example. “Does it actually act as a substitute so that people can get off opiates for chronic pain? Is there a positive impact? Or is it a negative impact, because as a result there’s more opiates in the black market? Is [pot] a gateway? We don’t really have an answer.”
One delicate balance for Canadian authorities has been guessing at what kind of pricing will be low enough to eradicate illicit sales – yet not so low as to entice new users. Canada’s finance minister, Bill Morneau, recently said the goal is “keeping cannabis out of the hands of kids and out of the black market. That means keeping the taxes low so we can actually get rid of the criminals in the system”.
One sign of success will be if Canada not only discourages underground sales, but converts illicit sellers to the new system, said Tim Boekhout van Solinge, a Dutch criminologist.
“What I am mainly following … is who will be the new legal growers, and whether authorities manage to get some of the illegal growers to become legal growers,” he said.