Weed Is Almost Legal in Canada—Here’s What To Look For Next
Although it's a step in the right direction, key players say the federal bill leaves much to be desired.
Image via CP.
It’s been a long road, but recreational weed is finally, without a shadow of a doubt, going to be legal in Canada.
The Canadian senate passed the Cannabis Act—Bill C-45—Tuesday night with a vote of 52-29, with two abstentions. The bill now needs Royal Assent, which could take place today. Canadians will be able to buy weed legally on October 17.
The bill is historic, putting an end to 95 years of prohibition and making Canada the second nation in the world and the first G7 country to fully regulate and sell recreational cannabis.
While many are celebrating, some activists, lawyers, and experts don’t feel the bill goes far enough in undoing the harms caused by prohibition, including the criminalization of young people and people of colour. In a news conference Wednesday morning, Bill Blair, parliamentary secretary to Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, said discussions about pardoning Canadians with pot convictions “can't take place" until legalization is implemented. He stressed that until that happens, it is still illegal to buy and consume weed recreationally.
There is also uncertainty about how legalization will play out in different provinces, with cannabis entrepreneurs in Ontario still hopeful that private dispensaries and pot lounges will at some point be allowed. The federal government has said it won’t regulate edibles for another year.
VICE reached out to people representing every side of the issue to ask what comes next.
Jack Lloyd, cannabis lawyer, on C-45’s significance and shortcomings:
Lloyd, a prominent Toronto cannabis lawyer who frequently represents dispensary employees busted in raids, said he’s thrilled that the bill finally passed.
“After 90 years of prohibition the government has finally admitted that it lost its war against the cannabis community. We won,” he said.
But he’s also concerned about those who are still facing charges or who may be charged before the new law comes into effect.
“You don't want to be the last person killed or maimed before the war officially ends,” he said. “Every Canadian saddled with a record because of cannabis must be pardoned and they are owed an apology.”
Conrad Floyd, owner of Hamilton Village Dispensary, on retail:
Floyd’s dispensary is currently the only legal pot shop in Ontario, following an Ontario court ruling that said he could sell cannabis only to licensed medical patients. However, Floyd said he wants to see Ontario open up the cannabis retail sector to private businesses—it’s the reason he voted for Doug Ford to be premier. Under Kathleen Wynne’s plan, weed dispensaries in the province were to be controlled by an LCBO monopoly, with 40 shops set to open later this year.
“The private model needs a chance to compete with the government model,” Floyd told VICE. “This is an opportunity to create such a great life for all the young entrepreneurs, the employees, and the patients will be taken care of—it’s win-win.”
Floyd said he pays his managers $35 an hour and his budtenders $20-$25 an hour. He said cities and the province stand to make a lot of money off high licensing fees.
“There’s no other industry that can take a dilapidated property and overnight turn it into a profitable business and we’re not even getting a chance to do that.”
Chuck Rifici, founder Nesta (a private equity firm that invests in weed companies), on the impaired driving bill:
Rifici told VICE he hopes Bill C-46, the government’s law to tackle weed-impaired driving, gets scrapped entirely. The bill would allow for cops to subject Canadian drivers to random drug tests, despite the fact that drug tests cannot detect impairment.
“I think it’s a red herring because impaired driving is already illegal in Canada,” Rifici told VICE. He said he takes particular issue with the government’s proposed per se limits, measured in nanograms of THC per millimetre of blood (ng). Under C46, there would be fines for having a per se limit of between 2 and 5 ng and harsher punishments for those with a per se limit above 5 ng.
“It immediately is going to criminalize anyone who is a medical patient who typically use daily” as well as recreational users who consume high amounts of weed, Rifici said. “You can use a lot of cannabis on Friday and still test positive on a Monday.”
He said he has already committed $25,000 towards launching a legal challenge against the bill, but he prefers it gets killed instead.
Jodie Emery, activist, on pardons:
A pot activist for the last 15 years, Emery told VICE she doesn’t consider the passing of C-45 to be the end of prohibition because the government is implementing new strict laws, including up to 14 years in jail for selling weed illegally.
“The government is completely ignoring the civil liberties reasons for legalization. They’re focusing only on making money and enforcing laws and the victims of prohibition are still being victimized today and as far as we can see into the future,” she told VICE.
Emery and her husband Marc pleaded guilty to a number of trafficking-related offences in December, after their Cannabis Culture dispensaries were raided. They were each fined $195,000 and two years of probation, and are not banned from participating in illegal weed dispensaries.
“I would be still celebrating if I wasn’t a criminal and if everyone else wasn’t a criminal, but we’re still demonized every day,” she said. “It’s hard to see so many people celebrating because they’re in line to make money.”
Sarah Gillies, owner The Baker’s Shop, on edibles:
Gillies told VICE she believes the government’s commitment to regulating edibles within a year is a massive step in the right direction, but she hopes the approach will be evidence-based.
“There was a lot of fear-mongering surrounding edibles over the past year,” she said, noting concerns about accurate dosing and proper usage have all been addressed by the already-booming edibles industry. “We are no longer talking about your run of the mill pot brownie: we have lab testing, advanced infusion techniques, and standardized extracts. Hopefully the government can legislate based on this industry rather than their concerns about the past.”
Annamaria Enenajor, partner at Ruby Shiller & Enenajor, Barristers, on policing against racialized people:
Enenajor told VICE she’s disappointed that the bill will criminalize 18-year-olds who share weed with their friends who are younger than them.
“What they’re inviting is increased criminalization of youthful Canadians who aren’t defined as youth by the legislation,” she said.
She said she would want to have seen mandatory considerations for judges who are sentencing these crimes, such as whether or not the sharing of weed was between friends of a similar age. She also she’s concerned that cops will unfairly use discretion against people of colour. A recent VICE News investigation showed that black and Indigenous people across Canada have been disproportionately charged with pot possession since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came into power.
“This government has shown its default position is to download discretion and authority to law enforcement officers,” she said, noting cops can choose whether to fine or arrest someone under C-45. “We know that discretion has always been exercised to the detriment of people of colour.”
Tyler James, director at Sensible Ontario advocacy group, on lounges and dispensaries:
James, formerly the director of community outreach at Eden Medicinal Society dispensaries, told VICE the next step is pushing Ontario to allow for private dispensaries and pot lounges.
“Doug Ford mentioned he wanted to allow for the sale of alcohol to be expanded beyond just the LCBO and my thoughts are if he’s looking at opening up the sale of alcohol…he would still be open to the idea of opening the sale of cannabis to private retail,” he said.
“They ran on a platform of being fiscally responsible. This is one area where they can easily cut out a few million dollars and generate a hundred million more.”
James also said it’s important for locals and tourists to have spaces to legally consume cannabis. As it stands, Ontario’s proposed regulations would ban consuming weed in any public space.
“It is possible to still obviously uphold public health and safety while still providing a place for the enjoyment of recreational cannabis.”
Rebecca Haines-Saah, public health policy expert and professor at the University of Calgary, on research:
Haines-Saah told VICE there’s a dearth of research on cannabis and most of the focus has been on its harms—something that needs to change.
“We haven’t looked at the benefits for youth who may be using recreationally or for medical use, and that’s definitely political,” she said.
She also said she believes the medical cannabis system needs to remain separate from rec—a position the Canadian Medical Association has argued against.
“I personally talk to people who are using for a range of conditions and they have a lot of problems with access” including costs and the stigma that comes from dealing with physicians who don’t approve of cannabis as a medicine.
Greg Engel, CEO of Organigram, a licensed producer, on advertising restrictions:
Engel said the government’s restrictions on marketing—products will need to be in plain packaging with large health warnings—are a letdown.
“We’re disappointed in the packaging,” he said, adding the rules restrict LPs’ ability to create brands especially when compared to the “vibrant” products already on display in dispensaries. But he’s hoping the digital space will allow for more freedom, and that things may loosen up over time.
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.
Sign up for the VICE Canada Newsletter to get the best of VICE Canada delivered to your inbox.