Canada will become the first Group of 7 nation to legalize recreational cannabis nationwide on Oct. 17, 2018. This moment is not only historic in its size and scope, but the move marks the end of a dark time — when Canadians could spend good portions of their lives in a prison cell for growing or smoking cannabis.
Although from a larger perspective, the industry's transition from illegal to legal may seem swift, even effortless at times, nothing can be further from the truth. Releasing marijuana from the chains of prohibition has been a very lengthy and intricate process that has involved all levels of government, assistance from everyday Canadians, and selfless deeds on behalf of activists who risked their own freedom to advocate for cannabis in the face of strong stigma.
Make no mistake, ending cannabis prohibition was the correct thing to do, but it has been a bitch to get here. While there have been numerous, painstaking wins, there still remains quite a few challenges reintegrating cannabis into society after decades of prohibition and propaganda.
Win: Ontario's Private Market
For a while, Ontario, Canada's most densely populated and richest province seemed doomed to have an authoritarian-style retail monopoly that tightly regulated the sale of cannabis through the iron grip of the provincial government. Then, along came the recently elected Premier Doug Ford, a member of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario and arguably the most controversial leader the province has ever seen. In the summer of 2018, Ford enacted a private system to the delight of cannabis-lovers and industry insiders everywhere.
Now, Ontario can actively participate in a cannabis retail ecosystem that encourages healthy competition, more choice for consumers, and an understanding that Ontarians do not need to be treated like children when it comes to accessing weed. We were buying pot long before it was legal, we'll just be going into a store now instead of getting it in the parking lot.
Win: The Medical Cannabis Program Continues
Canada's medical cannabis program, which was the first of its kind in the world, will continue despite that many doctors in Canada have been extremely reluctant to recommend cannabis as a medicine. This is mainly because physicians lack cannabis education and dosage knowledge.
As an example, even high-level physicians such as Dr. Jeff Blackmer, vice president for medical professionalism for the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) have argued that the arrival of recreational cannabis means the medical cannabis program should be phased out. This could leave many patients twisting in the wind with questions on specific products they should take to treat various conditions.
The number of medical cannabis patients has increased exponentially in recent years with nearly 300,000 client registrations according to March 2018 Health Canada data. These patients are people with HIV/AIDS, epilepsy, nausea, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and a long list of other conditions that required medical expertise to guide a course of treatment.
Thankfully, Health Canada has agreed to continue the program and look at this issue again in five years.
Win: Cannabis Normalization
Finally, we have one of the biggest wins of all: normalization.
Having the federal government legalize a drug which was vilified for almost 100 years as “the devil's lettuce” and a whole host of other derogatory terms, legitimizes marijuana on a level that shows the world that cannabis reform will not destroy the very fabric of a country. Hopefully, it encourages other nations to do the same.
It cannot be stressed enough that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government need to look into pardons for those arrested and convicted of cannabis-related offenses. Serving a sentence for something that is no longer a crime is an atrocity to those with stains on their records.
Challenge: 'We Have to Talk About the Border'
Next, Canada needs to have a frank discussion with the United States on its border policy regarding cannabis. There have been major challenges since U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced the possibility of banning Canadians working in the cannabis industry from entering the U.S. Canadians are being asked at the border if they have ever used weed, and an honest admission can land someone a lifetime ban from entering the supposed Land of the Free.
Trudeau has done nothing to defend the industry that he's worked tirelessly to create. When it comes to President Donald Trump, he is really our only hope at getting the United States to ease its border policy for Canadian cannabis users and workers.
Challenge: Packaging Woes
At the moment, the incredibly strict packaging guidelines on branding cannabis products are so tight, it looks as though consumers are buying plutonium instead of plant trimmings.
If the federal government in Canada truly wants to stamp out the black market, which is not an easy task, it will need to give licensed producers as much ammunition as possible. By enforcing the current strict laws on packaging, it will be difficult for consumers to differentiate between brands and establish preferences. Consumers rightfully want as much variety and choice as they already get for alcohol.
For many disgruntled activists community who regularly gripe about the way the feds have handled the legalization process, it goes without saying that the process behind ending prohibition has been far from perfect, but regardless, we are approaching nationwide legalization nonetheless.
In 2008, I was buying pot from my friends, and they were buying it from someone else, a person whom I didn't know. I got it in a plastic sandwich bag, I had no idea of the strain I was getting or how it was grown.
By 2014, I was able to access cannabis through professional, unlicensed advocates who braved the justice system in order to bring next-level products to consumers.
In 2015, I received a prescription and was fortunate enough to get cannabis through a licensed producer.
Now, on Oct. 17, 2018, my friends and I will be able to legally purchase recreational cannabis in Canada for the first time in my life.
If that's not a reason to celebrate, then I don't know what is.