The legalisation of recreational cannabis use in Canada in 2018 felt groundbreaking. The realisation of a long-held dream for many relatively quickly rolled out, provided a beacon of hope: that the cannabis plant would finally be liberated, that cannabis laws could no longer be used to maintain social and racial injustice, and that young adult lives would not be blighted with unnecessary convictions for using their drug of choice.
Two and a half years on, many of the promises made by Trudeau’s government have not been fulfilled, and numerous activists involved in pushing for change feel disillusioned and disappointed. Some are outright livid. Although removing possession charges (for up to 30 grams of cannabis) is clearly a positive step towards a fairer justice system, legalisation in Canada has some serious shortcomings. Issues that should have been prioritised, such as amnesty and record expungement, diversity and inclusivity within the legal industry and accessibility to high quality, fairly priced cannabis products, have yet to be realised.
A struggling legal cannabis industry
Despite the initial ‘green’ rush, it’s no secret that for-profit cannabis companies in Canada have struggled. Most of the major players have had to scale back significantly, lay off staff, close supersized greenhouses or merge with others to stay afloat and keep shareholders happy. Reasons for this include the poor judgement of the potential market size and a slow and uneven roll out of retail outlets across the provinces, which resulted in an overproduction of cannabis with nowhere to go. This was, of course, compounded by a slow transition of customers from the illegal to the legal market.
Regulatory costs and bureaucratic hurdles to overcome hiked the price of legal weed up considerably, making it hard for suppliers to compete with illegal growers. These hurdles also made the industry harder to access for smaller craft growers, which resulted in the experienced growers and activists being closed out of the market, thereby impacting the quality and diversity of cannabis produced.
Why the illicit cannabis market is thriving
A common complaint about legal weed in Canada is that it’s more expensive and not as good. Reasons for the higher price ($10/gram) include taxes, licensing costs, regulatory requirements, health and safety testing and administrative costs for producers. Illegal growers have none of these costs and have lowered their prices to compete (approx. $6/gram).
Complaints about quality include less variety, over-dry bud sitting around too long due to overstocking, and not being able to see what you buy due to packaging requirements. While laudable in some respects, strict advertising restrictions disallow brand identity, which might have otherwise helped lure people away from their favourite illicit product or producer.
Reduced access has also been an issue due to the uneven rollout of legal stores. Some provinces were much slower to start than others and restricted the number of licenses to just a handful, and there are still not nearly enough licensed points of sale across the country to meet the demand.
All of the aforementioned contribute to a booming illicit cannabis market. Although just over a half of cannabis users now report buying from legal sources, only a third of those do so exclusively. If the main barriers (cost, quality and location) to accessing cannabis are not dealt with, and there is a widely available alternative, people won’t switch to a legal supply. This is just consumer economics. Yet, it shouldn’t be too difficult to remedy with some tweaks to the regulatory apparatus, lowered licensing costs, reduced taxes and greater inclusion of craft growers into the legal market.
Failure to address social and economic justice
The racist underpinnings of the war on drugs are widely acknowledged. Black, Indigenous, and other minoritized populations have been overrepresented in cannabis arrests and charges in Canada before legalisation. In Regina, for example, indigenous people make up 9% of the population but accounted for 36-41% of cannabis possession arrests, despite having similar use rates. Yet despite the racialized policing of the drug war, Canada has failed to automatically expunge cannabis convictions. Anyone with a criminal record is excluded from working in the legal cannabis industry.
Black and Indigenous people are woefully underrepresented in the developing legal cannabis industry in Canada. A recent study that included 700 executives and directors across 166 licensed cannabis producers and 56 parent companies concluded that 84% of executive positions were held by white people, and 16% were non-white. Of these, only 1% were Black, and 2% Indigenous.
Social equity programmes, the likes of which are gaining pace in some states in the US (Illinois, Massachusetts, New York), have not been well developed in Canada. These schemes go some way to ensure that communities who have borne the brunt of prohibition have equitable access to a share of the profits in the lucrative cannabis industry, whether that’s through access to licenses, loans and training to develop businesses or with reparations being made in certain communities. The absence of such programmes in Canada has garnered fierce criticism and contributed to the underrepresentation of minority groups in the industry.
Another deeply galling trend is that there are a conspicuous number of individuals, ex-cops and former politicians (e.g. Julian Fantino, former chief of police of Toronto), who previously played a key role in criminalising people for cannabis-related offences in Canada, that have ideologically U-turned and are now key players profiting from the legal industry.
Creating better cannabis policies
Legalisation should not be used as a tool to further perpetuate the injustices of prohibition, with minority populations having borne the brunt of prohibition now having unequal access to the benefits of the nascent industry and wealthy, well connected and mostly white people taking advantage of the situation. Canada and other countries spearheading legalisation have a responsibility to right the wrongs of the drug war: to create a diverse and inclusive legal market and make high-quality cannabis available at a fair price.
Ultimately, legalisation should be equity centred at the federal level with targeted avenues of entry into the cannabis industry and related business and financial support for members of underrepresented groups. Taxes should be reinvested into such efforts and reparation programmes in communities that have been most adversely impacted by prohibition over the last fifty years.
Low-level cannabis offences shouldn’t exclude people from participating in the legal market. Former cannabis criminal records should be immediately expunged by the provinces in which the records were issued. To reduce the size of the illicit market, former ‘grey market’ dispensaries and illegal growers should have been helped to transition into the legal market with transitional licenses and business support, rather than being forced to close or face arrest and permanent exclusion from the legal industry.
Although Canada has done good, it could do better. Where it has missed the mark, we have important guideposts for improving cannabis legalisation. Ultimately, any cannabis policy should consult and engage with the people it impacts most, both the people most impacted by prohibition and the people producing, distributing and consuming the plant.