Cannabis is still legal

And the story is still news. Sorry, it will be for more time than you might like. It’s what happens when you become one of the first countries in the world to admit it’s OK to smoke pot. Just sit back, relax and…

This column first appeared in the Halifax Examiner on October 22, 2018.

Cannabis is still legal.

In the months, weeks, days, hours, minutes and, yes, seconds ­— “5-4-3-2-1! … Light up! It’s legal!”— counting down to the legalization of cannabis in Canada last week, you could be forgiven for imagining there was no other news worth noting in this country, or the world.

Or you might assume the words “cannabis,” “Canada” and “legal” — like the name of the late Spanish dictator, Generalissimo Franco — had been entered in a competition for an after-life as a Saturday Night Live punchline.

In the lead-up to legalization, news sites were filled to bursting with so many explainers, Q&As, FAQs and everything-you-need-to-knows, you might have imagined you’d accidentally enrolled in a Pot PhD program.

The CBC’s medical show, White Coat Black Art, for example, answered your health-related questions — “Will pot help me sleep”? — while its science program, Quirks & Quarks, broadcast a helpful primer in which Canada’s first real-life PhD in cannabis horticulture offered his own five homegrown  “growing tips for better bud.”

In between, there were virtual pages devoted to anything you might conceivably need to know about “buying legal cannabis in Nova Scotia,” about traveling to the US with your passport but without your pot, about where it might now be permissible, as well as legal, to light up.

In HRM, the answer to that question seemed to be almost nowhere except — deliciously and ironically — on the always reality-free grounds around Province House.

Enough already, one listener to CBC Radio’s Information Morning complained.

But it was — clearly — not nearly enough.

There were still all those breathless “firsts” yet to record and report on the day.

The first legal Canadian pot sale, for starters. By accident of geography, it occurred in Newfoundland, the land of the midnight toker where — heartwarming story alert — a newly minted cannabis-entrepreneur son sold his 71-year-old father, with whom he’d often shared joints, his first legal weed.

You can’t make this stuff up. Or maybe you can.

In Halifax, the first recreational weed buyer was a Halifax massage therapist who had been “handpicked by the Nova Scotia Liquor Corp.” — no explanation in the story I read — “jumped the queue ahead of the handful of people lined up since around 7 am” and bought some pot and rolling papers while the cameras clicked and history was made.

In Cape Breton, fiddler Ashley MacIsaac — who always dances to his own fiddle — flew in from his current home in Ontario and then stood, fiddle in hand, in a lonely line of one through the chilly overnight at the Sydney River Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation sales outlet just to acquire official bragging rights as “the first person on the island to get his hands on legal marijuana.”

Meanwhile, back in Halifax, rapper Classified celebrated cannabis legalization by releasing a music video that features “dozens of people in a public park as they rap along with his verses and every so often toke up and exhale a puff of smoke.”

News? Really? Well, yes, it is.

Canadians have been discussing and debating, diddling and dawdling around the issue of legalizing cannabis since at least 1969 when Justin Trudeau’s father — Prime Minister Pierre I — appointed the Le Dain Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs to do an evidence-based examination of drug use and policy in Canada. After 55 months of research and study, Le Dain concluded there was no scientific basis for criminalizing the use of cannabis.

The Beatles’ John Lennon called that moment “the opportunity for Canada to lead the world.”

We didn’t seize the moment.

It took 45 more years and a second-generation Trudeau prime minister to re-find that moment and finally seize it for real.

Ironically, that doesn’t appear to have been Justin’s intention; he was simply catching up with public opinion and conventional wisdom.

According to the new legalization-creation story, Trudeau and his family were doing a little vacationing, a little campaigning in BC in the summer of 2013 shortly after he’d won the federal Liberal leadership. At the time, Trudeau was on the record as favouring decriminalization, not legalization.

For reasons that still aren’t clear, Trudeau happened to see someone at a walkabout in Kelowna carrying a sign demanding decriminalization and made an off-the-cuff, I’ll-see-your-decriminalize-poster-and-raise-you-one-new-legalize-law cannabis statement.

“I’m actually not in favour of decriminalizing cannabis,” Trudeau told the person holding the poster to the surprise of his aides and the reporters following him. “I’m in favour of legalizing it. Tax and regulate. It’s one of the only ways to keep it out of the hands of our kids, because the current war on drugs, the current model, is not working.”

And that was the beginning. Legalization became a key plank in the Liberals’ 2015 election platform and the basis for last year’s Bill C-45. The Cannabis Act laid out the basics for federal legalization while leaving it up to the provinces to set the rules and the rest of us to adjust and acclimatize to the new reality. The government also set an almost impossibly short runway to get from criminal to legal — which it didn’t quite achieve, but which did concentrate everyone’s mind on the task ahead.

It is easy enough to complain about all of the things that have gone wrong — from the patchwork of contradictory provincial and municipal rules, to the lack of sufficient product to meet early demand, to the failure of dependable technology to measure pot impairment, to the absence of definitive long-term studies on the health impacts of cannabis use — but those issues will all sort themselves out over time.

The important thing is that Canada has made the correct legal, scientific, medical, moral and political decision — and without waiting for every other country to do it first.

Canada is only the second country in the world — after Uruguay — to legalize cannabis. We are the first G-7 country, the first G-20 country, the first OECD country…

Can we please stop with the firsts?

No. One of the realities of being the first is that you have to mark every next first.

In the days after midnight on Oct. 17, 2018, journalists have been busily documenting the latest post-legal markers:

  • On Oct. 18 at 2:30 am, a driver on Woodlawn Avenue in Dartmouth became the first person in the province to be ticketed under the Cannabis Control Act for illegally transporting the drug by having an open, partly empty container on the console next to him.
  • The day after legalization, NSLC officials were scrambling to close the first breach of the commission’s online pot purchasing site.
  • Less than a week after legalization, the new home delivery system may face its first labour disruption. Workers at Canada Post, the province’s weed home delivery system of choice, have voted to go on rotating strikes beginning as early as Monday. What to do? “There’s also stores available now,” helpfully offered local CUPW President Tony Rodgers, “It’s just that you’ll have to go to the store and get it.” Because it’s legal. Because it’s 2018.

And so it goes. And will continue to go, for a lot of firsts to come. Get used to it.

But the good news is that cannabis is still legal. And Franco is still dead. And Ashley is still stoned.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner.
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  1. an edmonton journal – via Postmedia/Financial/National Post, which now publishes both the Edmonton Journal AND the Edmonton Sun – can the state of censorship get any clearer?- article on the first day of legal pot sales in my hometown. A young girl whose parents had become wary of mean dogs and their owners suggested she sell her Girl Guide cookies outside a nearby cannabis store on its (legal) opening day. She did, and sold out her entire wagon-load of boxed cookies in 45 minutes. People in line were thrilled with her innovation and commented on her ability to fulfill the need for what would naturally follow their pot purchase… as one Facebook poster aptly stated: “They say pot is a gateway drug. To what? The fridge?”


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