Sunday, October 21, 2018

Thoughts on Canada's cannabis legalization

by George J. Dance

On October 17 I got an early birthday present - well, early because my birthday is a week away, but in fact something for which I had been wishing and waiting for almost 50 years: cannabis prohibition ended in Canada.

This is a huge step for liberty, which must be acknowledged. Canada is only the second nation in the world, and the first in the developed world, to have taken this step. Due credit has to be given to the Young Liberals who have called for prohibition's repeal for decades, and to Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who successfully pushed repeal through his caucus. If Trudeau does nothing else of value, history will remember and thank him for that.

We should also remember, of course, that Trudeau is no libertarian, but a pragmatic "progressive liberal," who was convinced by one libertarian argument: that prohibition leads to an illicit black market with all of its attendant problems. He championed legalization, not from any belief in personal liberty, but simply for the "public good."

Consequently, there is little that is libertarian in prohibition's replacement. A libertarian would like to see growing and smoking marijuana treated, under the law, as little different from growing and eating lettuce. While the law can arguably constrain some marijuana use (from DUI to public smoking), that has nothing to do with the basic right to treat one's own body the way one prefers (at least when no one else is harmed). Instead of that, we have a highly regulated regime, with many harmless actions still criminalized, as a recent CTV report reminds us.

Growing cannabis is banned outright in two provinces. In all the others, growing five or more plants in one's house or garden is illegal. It is even illegal to transport budding or flowering plants to or from one's home: "For example, if someone is moving, they must make sure the plants don’t have any buds or flowers on them before they transport them. Those caught with a budding or flowering cannabis plant in their possession in public could be sentenced to up to five years in prison."

Possessing more than 30 grams of dried marijuana, outside one's home, is also "punishable by up to five years in prison." Possessing any amount at all, when leaving or entering Canada, is illegal: "Anyone found guilty of importing or exporting cannabis without authorization could face fines or up to 14 years in prison."

While you may grow marijuana (in the other 8 provinces), do not try selling any of it: "Unless they’re a licensed retailer, any individual who sells cannabis to others can face steep fines and possible jail time." You may give it away, but only up to the prescribed 30 grams; give someone 31 grams, and the penalty is the same as if you sold it: you "could be charged under Bill C-45’s distribution laws and face up to 14 years in prison."

That last should give Canadian cannabis users pause. For years, if not decades, we bought marijuana from reliable, trusted private dealers, and in recent years, from public dispensaries. All those dealers and dispensaries faced jail time just for the crime of honestly meeting our needs – and all of them still do. The entire network of marijuana sales that Canadians relied on before October 17, all of it illegal, remains just as illegal, and just as criminalized, today.

Some provinces ban cannabis sales except by the provincial government. Others, like Ontario, allow private dispensaries, but require those to buy from the provincial government. Cannabis cannot be bought online, except from a single website. (No, one cannot even buy from another province's website). Even if one successfully bought cannabis online from another source, it still could not be shipped to them: "although it’s permitted to give less than 30 grams of cannabis to an adult friend, it’s not OK to send it to them via the mail or a courier because organizations can’t legally possess or distribute the drug without explicit authorization."

Indeed, the police can still raid your home, confiscate your cannabis, and arrest you if they suspect you are buying from an unlicensed source: "if someone purchases pot from an unlicensed seller, they would be in possession of illegal cannabis.... Individuals found guilty of possessing illicit cannabis can be fined or imprisoned for up to five years."

Unfortunately, many more steps remain for us to take on this trek. Fortunately, we do not have to take them alone. Social attitudes to cannabis have changed drastically, and will do so even more now that the stigma of illegality is removed. Cannabis activists will become more prominent and more respected. As well, we have a potent ally in the Charter of Rights, which our courts have invoked over and over to strike down laws and regulations regarding medical cannabis, and will no doubt do so for the recreational stuff as well.

So the fight for the freedom to use cannabis is only beginning. Nevertheless, it is appropriate to celebrate this sign of progress.

Reference: Jackie Dunham, "10 Things that are Still Illegal after Pot Legalization," CTV News, October 18, 2018. Web, Oct. 21, 2018.