Issue #4 September 25 2019

“Every day, our kids turn to dealers, gangs and criminals to buy marijuana, putting them in harm’s way.”

This claim has appeared on the Liberal Party of Canada’s website since at least 2016. It may be one of the most blatant canards of Canada’s cannabis legalization campaign. Variations of it were frequently repeated by Justin Trudeau in his own cheerleading for legalization.

It was a powerful meme. It played on our protectiveness of children and our fears for their safety. The research showed that it was also almost entirely wrong. Young people were not buying cannabis from dangerous criminals. They were buying it from their friends. And if some of those friends bought their cannabis from people in the illegal trade, those people were not likely to be dangerous criminals either.

It is true that they were breaking the law. But the research showed that they were mostly small operators, not selling other drugs, not engaged in other forms of crime, and not part of an organized crime structure. The illegal cannabis trade looked more like a disconnected cottage industry. This was not the pyramid-shaped drug cartel with a ruthless drug lord at the top and sketchy figures lurking in the shadows of our school yards – luring our children into the lower echelons of the pyramid.

Yes, I saw Reefer Madness as a university freshman – presented, satirically, by a student organization – in “smell-o-vision”. I did not understand that aspect of the promotional posters around campus until I attended the showing of the film.

Decades later, I certainly did not expect our government to resort to a repurposed version of the “madness” – in service of an ingenuous attempt to gain parental support for the creation of a lucrative new drug industry. Canada’s legalization of cannabis is a long way from the social justice concerns that drove calls for reform for so many decades.

It is important to acknowledge that there are players in the illegal and “grey” trade who target young people. I recall a poster in a downtown Hamilton ‘head-shop’ window that proclaimed “Back to school special! We have over 1,000 bongs!” Because nothing says academic preparedness like a new bong.

Now that Canada has legalized cannabis, are our children safer? In 2017, a consortium of licensed cannabis companies submitted a proposal to government that argued for advertising of cannabis on social media sites where no more than 30% of the visitors were underage. Think about that. Given the millions of social media users, that’s potentially a lot of children exposed to the sophisticated and seductive tactics of product promoters – a different (and real) incarnation of dealers preying on children. On such pervasive digital platforms, the industry would have been able to launch its own ‘back-to-school specials’ ostensibly aimed at college and university students but easily accessible to those in earlier (and much earlier) grades.

Health Canada did not adopt this proposal. But that did not stop some licensed cannabis producers from doing it anyway, as well as advertising at festivals, and sponsoring concerts – all illegal under the laws of Canada. Licensed cannabis producers have engaged in a wide variety of other criminal activities: use of illegal pesticides, securities fraud, purchase of illegal product, and maintaining illegal grow operations and connections with organized crime. The response from Health Canada has been mostly permissive.

While one of the bigger scandals was breaking, I noticed an interesting post on social media which read, “I have worked in the legal side of cannabis for many years & in the black market of cannabise (sic) many years. In my experience there are more shady people in the legal market than the Black Market. It’s amazing what you can get away with legally nowadays.”

Is this truly where we are with cannabis legalization in Canada? Have we gone from having a trade which sold illegal cannabis to having a trade which sells legal cannabis illegally? The latter scenario represents not only a violation of the law, it is also a violation of the trust we have placed in the legal trade. Which scenario represents the greater crime?

I enjoyed discussing such provocative issues with some of you earlier this month in Quebec City and I look forward to discussions with some of you next month in Halifax, and in November in Toronto. If you are not planning to attend these meetings, consider inviting me to wherever you are. I’ll come. An annotated list of popular topics is attached.