Aritcle by Dexter Docherty, Policy Options
The criminalization of cannabis is now a thing of the past in Canada, but the legacy of legalization is far from clear. Legalization represents a major social and political shift, after years of work by activists successfully showed that criminalization was harmful and ineffective. Policy-makers and business people, keenly aware of the changing legal and cultural landscape, have seized the opportunity to turn a multi-billion-dollar black market into a regulated, taxable industry.
The interests of the cannabis industry and harm-reduction proponents have converged to make cannabis legal, but the alliance is by no means guaranteed to continue. We will see over the coming years whether the legalization of cannabis leads to a more complete adoption of harm-reduction ideas in terms of how we treat, think about and confront the social and political puzzles related to drugs.
Officially at least, cannabis legalization has primarily been about public health, not business creation. The main goals of the Cannabis Act are to protect public health and safety, keep cannabis away from youth, and shrink the black market. Canada’s previous drug policy had failed, from the perspectives of both public health and public safety. Something different had to be done, as a 2013 Canadian Drug Policy Coalition report showed. Public health and harm reduction featured prominently in the government’s language surrounding legalization, but there is still work to be done to turn the rhetoric into reality.
Will public health goals conflict with industry bottom lines?
Displacing the black market requires a viable business model, and research from the United States suggests that legalizing cannabis for adults has slightly reduced usage among youth. But a for-profit cannabis industry needs customers, and this could be cause for concern from a public health perspective. The data from Colorado, where cannabis was legalized in 2014, show that demand in the recreational cannabis market is dominated by heavy users. The 22.5 percent of users who consume cannabis 26 days or more per month make up 71.1 percent of the demand, according to a report prepared for the Colorado Department of Revenue.
Health Canada notes that daily or almost daily cannabis use poses risks. The early signs out of Ontario and New Brunswick, where government-run cannabis companies reported losses, are that it could be harder than many thought to turn a profit within the current policy framework in Canada’s legal cannabis business. This could signal looming clashes between health objectives and industry needs.
Will a focus on industry success lead to neglect of community needs?
If the public health requirements of Canada’s cannabis strategy become too burdensome for the new industry, it’s possible the government might prioritize addressing the needs of businesses. If policy-makers’ energy is dedicated to industry support, this could lead to a neglect of the public safety goals of cannabis legalization. Experts have shown that to promote public safety, we must address the harms caused by criminalization through pro-social community engagement, to remove the barriers to economic opportunity for people with records and provide them with a sense of social connection. On this front, the legalization plan is coming up short: as of September 2019, only 71 of the estimated 250,000 Canadians with cannabis possession convictions on their records had applied for a pardon, and of these people only 44 had received one.
A commitment to public safety within a harm-reduction and public health framework requires more than just pardons for cannabis convictions, especially for Indigenous people and African-Canadians, who have been harmed most by the war on drugs.