A pungent cloud of marijuana smoke will be wafting over many parts of Canada on Monday. Yes, it’s 4/20 again, the unofficial holiday that openly celebrates pot, reefer, ganga, weed, Mary Jane or whatever you like to call it.
In most places, though, you’re unlikely to see police swooping in to corral the tokers. Even though pot possession remains illegal, the narcs probably won’t be busting anyone except dealers.
Part of the reason is practical; charging dozens, if not hundreds of people is a logistical nightmare. Another part is a reflection of the times, the increasing tolerance, if not acceptance, of marijuana as a part of mainstream culture. It’s no longer on the fringe.
Despite the federal Conservative government’s determination to crack down on illegal marijuana use and sales, the drug has edged steadily out into the open.
Successive federal governments, including the current Tory regime, have been partly responsible by creating a regulatory framework for medical marijuana since the turn of the century. Leaving aside its scientifically untested benefits, the fact that Ottawa has stepped in to control who grows it and who can use it confers some legitimacy on its place in society.
In fact, there’s evidence the easing of attitudes towards marijuana is just the pendulum swinging back in the direction it came.
“In Victorian times there was cannabis tinctures used in huge amounts of over-the-counter medicines,” notes Zachary Walsh, a University of British Columbia psychologist who’s conducted research into pot’s medicinal and recreational use, including a current study on using it to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. “It’s been mainstream in various cultures throughout time.”
A 2002 report for the Senate special committee on illegal drugs noted U.S. states didn’t begin outlawing marijuana – in part because of worries it triggered hyper-sexual behaviour – until the early 1900s, with Canada following suit. Pot use was driven underground, only re-emerging with the counter-culture explosion of the 1960s.
But the decades-long war on drugs has done little to stem the use of marijuana and other illicit drugs, nor banish pot from the culture. More widespread use of medicinal cannabis is allowing researchers to study the drug better to reveal potential benefits and drawbacks, said Walsh.
“The emerging appreciation of what cannabis is and isn’t, what it can and can’t do, is driven by accuracy,” he told Yahoo Canada News.
“I think we’re just seeing the very beginning of the mainstreaming of cannabis. I think within a generation it’ll be something as widely used as alcohol.”
Polls show Canadians support decriminalization or legalization
A variety of polls indicate a majority of Canadians favour legalizing possession and sale pot or at least decriminalizing its possession (meaning no charges). The numbers have been relatively steady, trending slightly upward. A July 2014 Angus Reid Global poll put support for outright legalization at 59 per cent nationally.
That support has risen as debate over legalization moved from the fringe to the political centre. Both main federal opposition parties favour either decriminalization or legalization, with strict regulation on sales.
A Leger poll conducted for The Canadian Press in 2002 suggested just over a third of Canadians favoured either decriminalization or legalization, said Christian Bourque, vice-president of the firm’s marketing and research group.
“I think that whole debate back then was so new that a lot of Canadians reacted that, well if it’s illegal it might not be good,” he said in an interview.
But Ottawa’s effort to regulate sales and use of pot for medical purposes seemed to open the door for its wider acceptance.
“Already we were seeing that as soon as you were in main urban areas across the country, acceptance of marijuana seemed to be fairly widespread,” Bourque said.
Bourque was involved in conducting Leger focus groups on cannabis as part of the Senate illegal-drugs committee’s work in 2002. There were signs then that Canadians were ready for decriminalization and possibly legalization in future, and that they were fatigued by the costly and apparently ineffective war on drugs.
A Leger survey last fall found that, whether legal or not, about half the 2,000 Canadians surveyed agreed using pot was acceptable as long as minors were barred from using it, he said. That view prevailed among most age groups, dropping off only among those 55 and older.
“So you see that while acceptance of smoking socially at an event or a party or whatever as an adult is quite acceptable but then people put barriers very quickly against minors using it,” said Bourque.
The results suggests time is not on the anti-pot advocates’ side.
This attitude was reinforced by the reaction to Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s revelation he’d smoked pot in the past. It caused hardly a blip in public opinion, said Bourque.
“Certainly the Conservative government tried to run a negative ad campaign surrounding that specific statement but it never took off,” he said. “It was something seen as fairly banal by Canadians.”
Police want fewer criminal charges for pot possession
Police, as demonstrated during 4/20 events, are also taking a more pragmatic approach. They haven’t embraced the Conservatives’ attempt to crack down on recreational pot sale and use.
In 2013, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) recommended officers be given the option of issuing violation tickets for simple marijuana possession.
“The CACP is not in support of decriminalization or legalization of cannabis in Canada,” Vancouver police chief Jim Chu, then the organization’s president, said at the time.
“It must be recognized, however, that under the current legislation the only enforcement option for police, when confronted with simple possession of cannabis, is either to turn a blind eye or lay charges.”
The latter option clogs up the criminal courts and a conviction leaves the person with a criminal record, Chu noted. The option to issue a ticket under a non-Criminal Code federal statute provides police with more flexibility, reduces the burden on the justice system and has a less devastating effect on the individual.
Rolling in the green
Perhaps the most intriguing shift in marijuana’s status is the willingness of the business community to see it as a potential investment opportunity. Entrepreneurs are putting money into medicinal pot production, essentially legal grow-ops, and other pot-related businesses.
“I would call it a step toward respectability,” said Werner Antweiler, chair of strategy and business economics at the UBC’s Sauder School of Business.
Antweiler likens it to the re-emergence of legal distilleries and brewers after prohibition was abolished in the U.S. in the early 1930s, though of course the pot market has been underground for a century.
“With marijuana we haven’t seen this type [of emergence] before because prohibition has been in place for a very long time, obviously,” he said. “But I think eventually we will actually see mainstream companies get interested in that.”
If major pharmaceutical manufacturers become involved, Antweiler said, that will open the door to a wider range of products with reliable quality and enough supply to meet the demand.
The early investors, meanwhile, are getting in on the ground floor of pot production in the hope that marijuana will eventually be legalized completely.
“I certainly think so that recreational use is magnitudes larger than the medicinal use,” said Antweiler.
Experience of pot-legal U.S. states being closely watched
On that score, everyone is watching closely what’s happening in U.S. states that have legalized pot. Colorado and Washington were the first, followed by Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia (where recreational use now is legal but sales are not). Several other states could follow suit.
Colorado, whose sales and regulation model was first out of the gate, is giving some indication of what to expect.
Legal pot hasn’t been the revenue bonanza for the state, in part because the high sales tax on recreational pot has sent users to medical pot dispensaries where the tax is far lower. But legalization also has not brought some kind of a-pot-calypse, either. Teen use is actually down, according to reports.
Legalization south of the border could remove one of the major impediments to changing Canadian law: The Americans would close the border.
Bourque said Leger hasn’t yet measured the impact of the U.S. legalization trend on Canadian opinion but believes the American experience could bolster acceptance of decriminalization at least.
“It would then be a stepping stone towards a form of legalization and the state taking over when it comes to distribution, pretty much like we saw in Colorado,” he said.
No one’s sure what a brave new world of legalized marijuana might look like.
Walsh believes the availability of good quality pot for researchers to study will lead to breakthroughs in new therapeutic medications to treat moderate pain and promote sleep.
“We’re going to find out a lot more about how cannabis works in humans over the next decade or so,” he said.
“On the recreational side I think we may end up seeing some public health gains to the extent that cannabis reduces the use of alcohol and other drugs.
“Also, if it’s legal, you’re not going to see the shared marketplace with some other drugs, so people won’t be exposed to other drugs when they purchase cannabis.”
Antweiler said there are challenges in areas like regulation and financing (pot sellers in states where it’s legal have trouble banking their revenues because of federal laws).
In Canada the medicinal pot market remains chaotic. Users have filed constitutional challenges against new federal rules that forbid them from growing their own supply and Vancouver is wrestling with a proliferation of pot dispensaries, seen by some as problematic in residential neighbourhoods and a back door for recreational sales.
But these are seen as solvable problems by legal marijuana advocates.
“I’m optimistic,” said Antweiler. “We see the movement in the United States and there is an indication that there is a cultural shift going on in the United States in that direction.”
“The door’s opening up more widely. The question is how long will Canada wait before we’ll see some movement on that front?”
In many ways, the landscape for marijuana seems similar to that of same-sex marriage. For years the idea of legitimizing same-sex relationships through marriage was considered off limits.
Until suddenly it wasn’t.