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All you need to know about marijuana legalization in Canada

By Carl Meyer      

In this zero-to-expert feature, you'll become well-versed on how Canada plans to 'go-green.'

Cannabis is a flowering herb. After harvesting and curing, the dried buds are either smoked, vaporized, or turned into edibles like pot brownies or concentrates like shatter. P&I Photograph by Jake Wright
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Picture this: you’re driving back from a weekend at the cottage with your friends.

It’s Sunday at noon, and the countryside is beautiful. Suddenly you see blue and red flashing lights ahead; it’s a roadside spot check. You kill the music.

You tell yourself you’ve got nothing to worry about. You’re sober as a gopher. In fact, you’re kind of wired on that large Timmies coffee you stopped for an hour ago. You’re fine.

You pull over and the officer comes up to the window. He asks you a few questions, and looks around the inside of the car. Suddenly he seems to get a whiff of something. The next thing you know, he’s asking you to take a breathalyzer test.
No biggie, you think. You certainly imbibed last night by the campfire, but you got a good night’s sleep, and woke up feeling refreshed—the booze should be long-gone from your system by now.

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But surprise: this isn’t a test for alcohol, it’s a marijuana breathalyzer. And you’ve just tested positive.

Now you’re panicking. How could that be? Then you remember someone was passing around a joint last night, and you took a few hits. But that was last night—now it’s noon the next day. What’s going on?

Welcome to the world of marijuana spot checks, a hypothetical place that may soon become a reality in Canada.

The thought experiment above is pure conjecture. We don’t know for sure yet, for example, whether police will be conducting regular roadside pot checks; whether they will be using portable marijuana breathalyzers to do so; or whether, in a world of legalized weed, what kind of consequences there will be for testing positive, at any level.

But we do know the RCMP confirmed this spring that it planned on field testing oral fluid screening devices similar to breathalyzers—which could detect marijuana—at roadside stops. Plus, a new handheld device has been developed at the University of British Columbia that can detect the primary ingredient of marijuana in the breath up to 12 hours after consumption.

Lastly, the Liberals under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who have promised to introduce a bill to legalize and regulate maryjane next spring, said in their election platform they would “create new, stronger laws to punish more severely those who…operate a motor vehicle while under [marijuana’s] influence.” So the elements are all there.

The potential pitfalls are, too. After legalizing the drug in several states, Americans are grappling with the problem of how to properly police smoking and driving. There are laws on the books, like strict rules on blood-test thresholds, which mimic the ones for booze. But pot and booze are quite different.

A new study of police data by the American Automobile Association’s traffic safety foundation concluded that it’s impossible to determine how impaired someone is from the marijuana roadside testing that’s currently allowed in six states. The foundation called the tests “arbitrary and unsupported by science.”

Canada’s cheeba-crammed future will see many new public policy conundrums just like this one. Understanding these upcoming debates is key to understanding how the legalization process will play out in Canada.

Get to know ganja

Cannabis is a flowering herb. After harvesting and curing, the dried buds are either smoked, vaporized, or turned into edibles like pot brownies or concentrates like shatter.

Cannabis contains hundreds of chemical substances. One of those is the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. That’s the stuff that gets you high.

What does psychoactive mean? Smoking pot changes your mood, your perception, and your thoughts. Usually you mellow out, your senses are heightened, your reaction time is slowed and your co-ordination is dulled. Put simply, it’s mind-altering. But while it does change your consciousness, it’s not a psychedelic the way acid is. Almost no pot smoker hallucinates. It’s mind-altering, but so are prescription medications like the sedative Ambien and Ritalin, which is used to treat a variety of disorders.

How high does an average user get, and for how long? Here’s where it gets really tricky. THC acts completely differently on your body than alcohol, the intoxicant many adults are familiar with. Alcohol is water-soluble and evenly spreads throughout your blood and lungs. That means a certain amount of booze is much more accurately linked to a certain level of impairment.

There are some differences, of course; think of your lightweight friend who can get buzzed off half a glass of wine. But most people are plastered after half a bottle of whiskey, and for a good long while, no matter how often they drink.

With weed, the effects are wildly different depending on the person, their history with it, and the context of when and how they got high. Unlike alcohol, there is no predictable relationship between the high and the amount of THC in your system.

And tolerance is a major factor in impairment: first-time users can experience hours of side-effects with just one hit, while chronic users can toke up and feel virtually unaffected.

There are an unimaginable number of different factors at play. There are also hundreds of different strains of marijuana, all with different potencies and amounts of THC.

Fat-soluble flowers

This is why determining who is too stoned to drive is no simple feat. A woman in Denver, by way of example, was acquitted last year even though she tested way above the state limit, because the jury wouldn’t buy that she was impaired.

Melanie Brinegar, a medical marijuana patient, uses grass to help with back pain, which she experiences when driving, and her lawyer successfully argued that taking her medicine didn’t affect her ability to drive.

A big reason why the high and the substance’s presence in your body aren’t directly linked is that THC is fat-soluble. THC embeds itself in a body’s fat tissue and is released slowly. It’s also a big molecule that stays in your breath for a long time.

That’s how Mina Hoorfar, a professor in the School of Engineering at the UBC Okanagan, was able to develop her handheld marijuana breathalyzer: it uses microchannels to segregate all the different volatile organic compounds in a person’s breath, and uses a sensor to detect the big fat THC molecule.

“How long [THC] stays in the body, and how long impairment will last, depends on many factors,” says Hoorfar in an interview with P&I. “[It depends on] gender, metabolic rate of the body…it depends on the ethnicity, it depends on the diet,” she says. “It depends when you smoke, it depends not just on smoking but how you consume.”

The function of her device, she stresses, should not be confused with measuring impairment. It’s useful for providing law enforcement with a portable, handheld tool to detect THC presence, but drawing any conclusions from that presence is beyond the device’s abilities.

But marijuana does impair several brain functions that should be sharp as a whip before getting behind the wheel. Add to that the fact that marijuana is the second-most-used recreational drug in Canada after alcohol, and it’s reasonable to assume that a lot of Canadians are likely already driving while under the effects of weed; Canada is going to need a realistic framework for how to deal with that.

Drug-free versus drug spree

A related issue for legalization is deciding which places in Canada should be 420 friendly, and which should ban the bud.
Canada’s oil and gas industry, for one, wants the federal government to block marijuana use in workplaces where safety is a factor, like, well, oil and gas facilities.

Similar to driving, many Canadians will be showing up to work with residual THC in their bodies, even if they aren’t actually showing up stoned. Instituting drug testing at workplaces with a certain threshold won’t get to the root of the issue, unless the objective is total and complete zero tolerance, which it very well could be.

Some businesses in the U.S., however, refuse to go this route, because of the fear that their pool of applicants would shrink to an unacceptably small level, according to Occupational Health and Safety magazine.

The question of where marijuana should be allowed to be consumed is even broader. In Colorado, for example, public consumption is banned. Most hotels ban the drug, as do car rental outlets and many other businesses, the Associated Press reports. You can’t smoke up on federal property, either.

In fact, there aren’t many places where you can burn one, outside of your own home. The marijuana movement in Colorado is currently trying to establish cannabis clubs, but they’re running into opposition.

Around the world in 80 tokes

But let’s back up a bit. Where in the world can you smoke pot legally in the first place?

We’ve talked about American states so let’s start there. There are four that have fully-legalized marijuana for recreational use—Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington—and 25 states that have legalized medicinal use.

The District of Columbia has legalized both, although it still bans commercial sales thanks to Congressional action. Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level in the United States.

Beyond the First Four, the fight for legal weed in the U.S. is picking up speed. When Americans in five other states go to the polls in November to elect their next president, they will also vote whether to legalize recreational cannabis.

Those states are Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada, according to The Denver Post. Four more—Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota—will vote on medical marijuana, the Post reports.

One of those states should stand out to you. California has close to 39 million people, more than the entire population of Canada.

The population of all the recreationally legalized states put together adds up to less than half of California’s population. That means if Californians vote to legalize, the state would triple the amount of Americans who can legally smoke dope overnight.
Outside the U.S., it’s a similar patchwork of activity. In 2013, Uruguay became the first, and so far only, country in the world to fully and completely legalize growing, selling, and consuming marijuana on a national level.

Other countries have legalized, decriminalized or otherwise loosened some aspect of their approach to marijuana. Jamaica, for example, has decriminalized small amounts of pot under certain circumstances, while Spain allows the cultivation and smoking of marijuana for personal use, in a private setting. Many people are familiar with the ‘coffeehouses’ in Amsterdam.

In all, 22 countries have some form of decriminalization, according to the Canadian government’s very handy discussion paper titled “Toward the Legalization, Regulation and Restriction of Access to Marijuana.”

It’s worth noting that this softening in drug policy is not a global phenomenon by any means. In many countries, like China, marijuana is still highly illegal.

For sale: Jazz cigarettes

Along with where it should be smoked, there’s also the questions of private cultivation and commercial sales.

In Canada’s most populous province, stars seem to be aligning in favour of Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s plan. She has been planting the seeds for months, trying to grow the idea in Ontarians’ minds that the LCBO, the Crown corporation that sells booze across the province, would be the natural place to sell marijuana.

Her argument is that the distribution system is already set up, the carding regime already strong, and the warehouse security measures already tight. Perhaps most importantly, the LCBO idea is supported by Bill Blair, the federal justice minister’s Parliamentary secretary and one of the leading figures in Trudeau’s legalization task force.

Not everyone agrees. The head of the largest food retailer in Canada, Loblaw Companies, which also owns Canada’s largest pharmacy chain Shoppers Drug Mart, wants to sell marijuana through its pharmacies.

Even Wynne has recently begun to waver on her position, suggesting that the LCBO would handle more of the “regulation and distribution and monitoring.” That sounds more like a hybrid system, similar to how British Columbia sells liquor; a mix of private retail stores and government oversight bodies and purchasers.

Still, others think legalized marijuana shouldn’t be sold in storefronts at all, rather that it should replicate the existing medical marijuana regime by allowing Canadians to order their weed directly from licensed producers and have it delivered to them through the mail. That would be the best way to keep it out of the sight of children, they argue.

With any of these systems, there is still the question of whether individual Canadians will be allowed to grow their own. By way of comparison, you can brew your own beer, but you can’t distill your own liquor. Will weed be like the former, or the latter?

The Trudeau government recently changed the rules around medical marijuana, allowing patients to grow a small amount for themselves, or designating someone to grow it for them. But it’s hard to tell if this is a harbinger of things to come. Trudeau has often talked about the end goal of restricting access, and Blair has seemed to come out against it, saying “it is not like tomatoes.”

Blazing a trail

Finally, there is the question of how, procedurally, marijuana will become legalized.

Marijuana has been illegal in Canada for close to 100 years. You can’t produce it, sell it, or even have it in your pocket. If you do any of these things and you’re caught, you can face fines, jail time, or both.

And lots of Canadians do get caught: in 2014 there were 57,314 police-reported drug offences related to pot possession, according to the government’s discussion paper.

There is the exception of the 40,000 people who hold medical weed licenses, the discussion paper says, and as of this month, 35 licensed dealers nationwide, according to Health Canada.

Marijuana is illegal because it’s listed under Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Legalizing pot, then, means first removing it from that list of illegal drugs. But legalization also means much more. As we’ve seen, it means creating new rules for whether and how weed can be bought, sold, taxed, packaged, distributed, tested, and the like.

There are many people who believe there should be an intermediate step: decriminalization. The term means different things to different people, but generally it means that the cops will stop arresting people for just having a baggie of weed or a joint on them.

That could mean the law doesn’t change and police just look the other way, or it could mean marijuana stops being a criminal offense but is still illegal, like getting a parking ticket. Supporters of decriminalization argue that Canadians shouldn’t continue to be made into criminals for something that soon won’t be a crime.

But critics say decriminalization doesn’t solve the problem of the $7-billion weed black market in Canada. Sure, stoners will be off the hook, but the organized crime that produces and sells weed will continue to operate. Only legalization will destroy the black market, they say.

That’s how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sees it; he’s ruled out decriminalization between now and the spring of 2017, when the Liberals plan to introduce the new law.

So what will be in that law? If we scan the government’s discussion paper for clues, there are some likely factors. The paper suggests the following elements are “largely self-evident”: legalized possession of a certain amount of weed; regulations surrounding its production, distribution, quality, safety, potency and access; new criminal laws to punish those who try to keep selling illegally; support for prevention, addiction and other services; an education and awareness campaign; and data-gathering.

The paper also suggests a few broad elements of regulation: a minimum age; advertising restrictions; setting taxes and prices; banning certain types of products; and limits on possession and sales.

Beyond that, it seems the issue is largely still hazy.

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