Sarah Leamon: Assessing the pros and cons of Canadian cannabis legalization one year later

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      The one-year anniversary of cannabis legalization is swiftly approaching. 

      Although October 17 marks when legal weed came to Canada, there is still a lot of certainty and criticism about how our government chose to approach this issue. 

      Perhaps the biggest gripe is over red tape. 

      Anytime the government gets a hand in matters, concerns over beadledom usually become an unfortunate reality.  After all, governments have a way of over-complicating matters...and cannabis has been no exception. 

      The intersection of federal, provincial, and municipal cannabis laws has been puzzling at best and impossible to decipher at worst.

      Simply finding a legal place to consume cannabis can be a complicated mess, depending on where you are located and the multiplex of laws and by-laws at play. 

      Other red-tape challenges have included supply shortages, unacceptable lag times in processing applications and licences, and overly complicated advertising restrictions…just to name a few.

      All in all, Canada’s current version of cannabis legalization feels overcomplicated and overpackaged. 

      And perhaps the most literal overpacking of our legal product comes in the form of the packages themselves. Excessive and unnecessary plastic has become yet another unwelcome hallmark of legalization, ticking off cannabis consumers and environmentalists alike. 

      But worse still, some critics have described our Canada’s version of cannabis legalization “Prohibition 2.0”. They argue that cannabis has been overly legislated, and that the rules and regulations around it have done nothing more than create a new and different version of cannabis criminalization.

      When you consider that cannabis arrests are still happening in this country, the criticism appears to be more rooted in reality than a pipe dream. 

      When the Cannabis Act legalized cannabis, it simultaneously created more than 40 new cannabis-related offences. Some are serious in nature and attract significant penalties, including a criminal record and even jail time. 

      For example, possessing more than the allowable limit of cannabis products can land you in prison for up to five years, while illegally distributing or selling cannabis can put you behind bars for 14 years. 

      With cannabis prosecutions continuing, the government's official position on the criminal status of pot seems a tad disjointed. 

      After all, it is concurrently putting present-day, nonviolent cannabis offenders behind bars and handing out pardons for nonviolent historical cannabis convictions. This is not only disharmonized, but fundamentally and existentially unsound.

      But it’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to our cannabis year in review. 

      Despite the unrelenting criticism, the bottom line is that we have successfully lifted the federal prohibition on cannabis in this country. 

      The big benefit is that this was done on a federal level, rather than leaving it up to individual provinces to decide on the legality of weed for themselves. 

      This, in itself, is a major step forward. It squarely seeks to place cannabis and cannabis-related laws under federal jurisdiction. 

      This means that if provinces or municipalities attempt to meddle with cannabis laws, restricting access, or prohibiting the plant altogether, their attempts are likely to be thwarted. 

      Consider Quebec as an example. 

      Following legalization, the province passed laws prohibiting home cultivation. While our federal laws allow for individuals to grow a maximum of four cannabis plants at home—albeit subject to some restrictions—Quebec’s provincial laws attempted to ban this activity altogether. 

      Residents of the province were not permitted to grow cannabis at home under any circumstance. 

      Ultimately, however, the court ruled that the provincial law against home cultivation infringed on the federal government's exclusive jurisdiction. It was declared unconstitutional, which means that residents of Quebec are now permitted to grow a maximum of four cannabis plants at home…just like the rest of Canada. 

      Although our system isn’t perfect, the fact that we have legal access at a federal level gives Canadian cannabis room to grow. 

      And when we grow, we also work toward destigmatization. 

      In the past, the fear of a cannabis-related criminal charge, prosecution, and even jail time created a world of fear, scare tactics, and misinformation around the plant. 

      With the legalization of cannabis in Canada, some of the stigma around cannabis and cannabis consumers has started to drift away.

      Legalization has allowed people to freely talk about their cannabis use—and curiosities—without fear of criminalization. 

      Cannabis consumers are free to come out of the so-called cannabis closet, while parents and educators are able to provide more factually based cannabis education to curious young people. 

      Educational panels, workshops, and events related to the plant are popping up all over the country. Even the government has dedicated more dollars to advancing cannabis research, while private investors are also clamouring to jump on the bandwagon. 

      There is suddenly an open and public space to share cannabis information and experiences. 

      It seems like everyone is talking cannabis—and when it comes to destigmatization, open and honest conversations are the first step toward healing.   

      But with so much still unknown, like the fate of legal edibles, topicals and extracts, for example, there is a great deal of uncertainty when it comes to cannabis legalization, even with a full year behind us.   

      While we have made some progress, there is still a great deal of work to be done in order to forge a path to real cannabis freedom. 

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