Canada’s decision to legalize recreational marijuana in October 2018 was greeted by advocates and critics with predictions of dramatic benefits or dire consequences. Almost four years later, questions about the impact of the move elicit mainly shrugs.
“Maybe I am the wrong demographic, but I have not noticed any serious problems arising from legalization,” said one senior veteran of the Canadian legal system, who declined to be identified because of his role in administering the law.
“I think it probably has reduced policing costs and court time arising from simple possession offences (as opposed to trafficking),” the legal veteran added in an email to VOA. “No evidence of lawyers or bankers or Bay Street types going wild. Maybe alcohol is still the drug of choice.
“You do get the occasional whiff of weed walking down Bay Street,” Toronto’s financial industry core, the legal practitioner added, “and there has been an unbelievable (and maybe unsustainable) proliferation of marijuana stores.”
Anecdotal evidence of that sort is the best measure so far of legalization’s impact in just the second country to legalize recreational use of the drug, given a dearth of hard data on the effect on traffic accidents, drug overdoses, mental health outcomes or petty crime.
“Unfortunately, there hasn’t been concrete data I’ve seen that allows someone to comment on all of those goals and how Canada is doing in regards to them,” said Jonathan Wilson, chief executive officer of Crystal Cure Inc., a craft producer of cannabis in the eastern province of New Brunswick.
The 2018 legislation legalizing marijuana called for a thorough assessment of the impact after three years, but the government still has not begun that process, a source of frustration for some in the legal marijuana industry who are seeking reforms that would give them a boost against their illicit competitors.
In fact, the illicit trade has proven surprisingly durable despite the ready availability of legal marijuana at government-licensed outlets. One reason for that may be user complaints about the taste and quality of the legally approved products.
Jon Cappetta, vice president of content with U.S.-based High Times Magazine, said in an interview that the Canadian industry has a reputation for low-quality mass-produced marijuana, which he dismissed as “Walmart weed.”
“That’s not to say there’s not great product up there,” Cappetta said. “But it’s mainly on the traditional market, not the legal one.”
Wilson said it was not until the end of last year that legal marijuana sales surpassed illicit sales, according to estimates by the Ontario Cannabis Store, the only legal online retailer of recreational marijuana in Canada’s most populous province.
“We don’t know exactly how this is measured, but regardless of the lack of empirical data on this, it is very apparent in many parts of the country that the illicit market is very much alive and well.”
That has cut into early projections for a big boost to the economy through direct and indirect taxes, though the benefits are not insignificant.
According to a report prepared by the Deloitte consultancy firm and reported by MJBiz Daily in February, the industry had contributed $34.2 billion through the end of 2021 to a national GDP that totaled almost $2 trillion last year.
On the other hand, fears of an epidemic of underage marijuana use have also not borne out. “Regarding prevalence, there appears to have been no marked increase in cannabis use by youth in Canada yet,” reported the Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in 2021.
The report went on to say, “In the lead up to legalization, professional associations including the Canadian Psychiatric Association, the Canadian Medical Association, and the Canadian Pediatric Society suggested that legalization posed a threat to public health, advocated for the legal age for cannabis use to be set at a minimum age of 21 or 25, or that Canada should not legalize at all because it would place youth at greater risk of harm. With such categorical fears now shown to be largely unfounded, this should provide the basis to move forward on more nuanced grounds.”
The Canadian Medical Association, for its part, continues to advise caution. “Today, we continue to advocate for a public health approach to cannabis with three primary aims: prevent problematic drug use; make assessment, counseling and treatment services more available; and improve safety for those who use through harm reduction programs and awareness,” it says on its website.
The limited data that exists provides a mixed picture of the impact on road safety. The federal agency Public Safety Canada reported last year that “while police-reported data tends to indicate a significant decline in overall trends in impaired driving incidents over the past ten years, the proportion of [drug-impaired driving] incidents reported by police has significantly increased from about 2% of the total in 2009, to approximately 9% in 2020.”
On the other hand, the report said, its survey data “tends to indicate that public education and awareness campaigns … appear to have effectively changed Canadians’ perceptions around driving after cannabis use, with an increasing number of respondents agreeing that cannabis use impairs driving abilities. Furthermore, the proportion of Canadians reporting driving after cannabis use has continued to decline in 2020.”
One of the more challenging issues for the nation’s police forces has been whether to permit their own officers to indulge while off duty. Many forces, including the storied Royal Canadian Mounted Police, banned its use altogether while others, particularly in liberal-leaning cities like Vancouver, authorized its off-duty use as long as the officers showed up to work fit for duty.
John Orr is president of the police association in Calgary, Alberta, where officers in February won the right to use cannabis while off duty. Such use “is not unheard of and in Vancouver, it’s been my understanding there’s been no issues at all,” Orr told the Calgary Herald newspaper at the time.
The same article quoted Andrea Urquhart, the executive director of human resources with the Calgary Police Service, saying, “There’s no evidence this particular change would be detrimental to our fundamental goal to serve and protect.”
Jo-Ann Roberts, a former interim leader of the Green Party of Canada, sees what data is available as a vindication of the party’s early advocacy for legalization.
“We believed it would not result in the lawlessness many predicted. In fact, we believed it would reduce policing costs, take pressure off the courts and reduce the influence of organized crime,” she told VOA. “I think provinces and producers are still working out the details of delivering the product, but overall the transition from illegal to legal has gone smoothly.”
Brennan Sisk, the former cannabis coordinator for an NGO based in Fredericton, New Brunswick, argued that legalization has opened the door to peer-reviewed research on the health impact of marijuana and the development of industrial uses.
But, he said, the government has not embraced cannabis as a legal part of everyday culture and continues to approach it “strictly from a harm reduction mechanism.”
“I think Canada has developed a good set of best practices and is ahead of the curve when it comes to identifying practical and productive changes to restrictions,” Sisk said.
“Those working in the Canadian system are well positioned to advise new jurisdictions on how to roll out a legal plan while benefiting from an economic development perspective.”