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.

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In Halifax, from 2015 to mid-2017, African-Canadians were five times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession. Over a 10-year period in Toronto, from 2003 to 2013, African-Canadians with no criminal convictions were three times more likely to be arrested than were white people with no criminal convictions. In Regina, Indigenous people accounted for 41 percent of cannabis possession arrests in 2015 and 2016, and 36 percent in 2017, despite their making up just 9.3 percent of the city’s population. Major investment must be made in local organizations to support social and economic opportunities in the communities most impacted by the criminalization of cannabis and the war on drugs more broadly.

Will we see the end of the criminalization of other substances?

The legalization of cannabis is an opportunity for a major paradigm shift in Canadian social policy. Canada could follow a similarly principled public-health approach in other arenas. The most pressing issue in need of a major, coordinated harm-reduction approach is the overdose crisis in Canada. Every day, 11 Canadians die from opioid overdoses. In July 2019 in Vancouver, the Mayor’s Overdose Emergency Task Force recommended that the federal government declare it a national public health emergency. It urged the federal government to provide access to a safe supply of opioids or other substances in order to prevent the ever-growing number of hospitalizations caused by opioid-related poisoning. The report also notes that Canada’s chief public health officer is discussing safer supply with provinces and territories, which indicates there is growing interest among experts in scaling up the evidence-based approach to drug policy that helped get cannabis legalized in 2018.

Canadian policy-makers have a choice to make about what they want the legacy of cannabis legalization to be. They deserve credit for recognizing that criminalization did not make our society safer or healthier. It remains to be seen how committed they are to rectifying the harms caused by criminalization, and what commitment there is to the harm-reduction principles that shaped so much of the government’s discourse around the Cannabis Act.

Now is the time to ask whether the legalization of cannabis has been about more than just turning black-market profits into taxable revenue. A deeper commitment to harm-reduction principles is not politically impossible. The evidence is clearly against continued criminalization and punishment and in favour of providing everyone with genuine support. Leaders should be able to get the public behind policies that are smarter, safer and community-based.

This article is part of the The Making of a Cannabis Industry: Year One special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock, by Lifestyle discover.

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Dexter Docherty

Dexter Docherty is a master’s student in evidence-based social intervention and policy evaluation at the University of Oxford. Previously he was a foresight analyst working on social futures at Policy Horizons Canada, and he worked in the research and statistics division of the Department of Justice Canada.

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