Canada shows U.S. the way on cannabis

It’s difficult to remember now how anxious Manitoba and other provincial governments were a year and a half ago about the looming legalization of cannabis. Provinces thought they needed a year’s delay beyond the federal government’s July 1, 2018, target date for legalization. They had to train and equip police officers. They had to write regulations. They had to license retailers. It was all moving too fast.

Legalization took effect in October, three months later than planned. The floodgates were opened and the river continued to flow much the way it did before.

Canada has now completed more than a calendar year with legal cannabis sold in government-licensed stores.

The sky has not fallen. No epidemic of cannabis addiction. No surge of stoned motorists weaving across the roads. No spike of industrial accidents involving marijuana use. You have to look closely to see any change in Canadian cannabis use and its effects.

The people at Statistics Canada, who have been looking closely, estimate that Canada now has more than 400 cannabis stores — but only 24 in Ontario, where the government has been slow to license retailers.

About 45 per cent of Canadians live within 10 kilometres of a cannabis store. That figure should increase in 2020, when Ontario gets its act together and opens more stores.

Average store prices rose to $10.65 a gram in October from $9.82 a gram last October. But about 75 per cent of users say they still buy cannabis on the black market, where prices dropped to $5.93 a gram in July from $6.51 in October. The illegal trade should decline as provinces open more stores, but the price difference at the moment is keeping the black market strong.

About 17 per cent of Canadians in the latest quarterly survey said they had used cannabis, compared to 14 per cent before legalization. As demographic shifts go, that’s barely noticeable.

Canada’s experience with legal cannabis will be watched closely in the United States, where the federal government severely punishes cannabis possession and use, but where many states have repealed criminal sanctions on the weed or fully legalized it. The U.S. appears to be in the midst of gradually changing its mind about cannabis. Canada, along with California, Colorado and about half of the states, is a little ahead of the curve.

This transition phase requires cannabis users to live with absurdities. You can legally possess or use cannabis in Vancouver and you can do the same in Seattle, but you must never carry cannabis with you across the border from Vancouver to Seattle and you must never tell a U.S. border guard that you once smoked a joint. That admission could result in a ban from entering the U.S.

Eventually, the U.S. government will respond to the experience of states that have legalized it and, to the evident wish of the U.S. public, stop wasting law enforcement efforts on catching, convicting and imprisoning cannabis users. Successful legalization in Canada should help pave the way for a more tolerant policy in the U.S.

The U.S. drug enforcers and border guards may be just as anxious as Canadian provinces used to be when they see legalization on the horizon. The data from Canada should help reassure them.

Read more at the Winnipeg Free Press

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