Pubdate: Mon, 07 Dec 2015
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Post Company
Author: William Marsden


It Would Be the First G-20 Country to Nationally Allow Recreational Use

Montreal - For police forces across Canada, the month of August is 
harvest time.

Officers slip on their coveralls, grab thick gardening gloves, 
shoulder machetes and begin the annual ritual of chopping down 
marijuana plants hidden in cornfields, remote mountain valleys and 
forest clearings.

If growers are unlucky enough to be caught red-handed, they are 
cuffed and taken to court. Each police unit hits two or three of 
these hidden marijuana plantations, with the confiscated pot taken to 
incinerators. The destruction of marijuana plants goes on for about 
two weeks, and then it's back to normal police work.

Has this war on marijuana worked?

"No, it hasn't," said Clive Weighill, chief of the Saskatoon police 
force, president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and 
a veteran of the August raids.

Times, however, are beginning to change in Canada.

The new Liberal government has promised to act quickly to legalize 
marijuana for general use, which would make Canada the first Group of 
20 country to end cannabis prohibition on a national level.

Weighill is among those in favor. "We are looking to the United 
States and the Colorado experience, the Washington experience, and we 
hope to learn from that."

The opposition Conservative Party strongly opposes legalization, 
arguing that it would make cannabis "more easily available to youth." 
During the recent election campaign, former Conservative prime 
minister Stephen Harper said marijuana is "infinitely worse" than 
tobacco and "is something we do not want to encourage."

But faced with a large Liberal majority supported by the socialist 
New Democratic Party, the Conservatives are powerless to stop legalization.

Although the war on drugs in Canada has been nowhere near as dramatic 
as the ones waged in Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and the United States, 
it has nonetheless involved violence and consumed considerable 
financial and human resources. In the late 1990s in Montreal, an out 
law biker gang war claimed 165 lives and ended only after a crime 
reporter was shot seven times (he lived) and the Hells Angels 
threatened to assassinate politicians. The violence was all about the 
control of illegal drug sales, including marijuana.

The Liberals point out that more than 600,000 Canadians have criminal 
records for simple possession of marijuana and that the number 
continues to grow. They say it is a needless destruction of lives.

Each year, the federal government spends as much as 500 million 
Canadian dollars (roughly $374 million) on drug enforcement and 
prosecution, according to the auditor general. About 50 million 
Canadian dollars go to raiding marijuana plantations. These figures 
do not include the money spent by provincial and municipal authorities.

Yet a large number of people still use cannabis. For about a decade, 
studies have shown that past-year use among Canadians ages 15 to 24 
is the highest in the developed world, with a recent study putting 
the rate at 24.6 percent. For adults 25 and over, the figure drops to 
8 percent.

"Our system is badly, badly flawed," said Eugene Oscapella, a law 
professor at the University of Ottawa and a longtime advocate for 
legalization. "I keep asking myself a question that I have been 
asking for 30 years: 'Could we have done a worse job if we tried? 
Could we have found a way to create more dysfunction than we managed 
to create?' "

The Canadian Center on Substance Abuse, a federally funded research 
organization, has already cautioned against rushing into legalization.

After a fact-finding mission to Colorado and Washington, the 
organization's answer was to "go slow."

"We have to be clear on what our goal is, why are we doing this," 
said Rebecca Jesseman, a specialist in performance mechanisms at the 
center. "Are we looking to promote public health? Are we looking to 
reduce youth access? Are we looking to cut out the black market? What 
is the primary goal, because that will also help us shape 
regulations, monitor our progress towards that goal and monitor our success."

She added that the center believes the dominant concern should be 
public health.

'Selling cannabis as candy'

One of the more important lessons from Colorado was that the state 
appears to have lacked a sense of clear purpose and finds itself 
unable to control a growing industry that is clearly targeting young 
people, Jesseman said.

"They are selling cannabis as candy," she said, referring to products 
laced with THC (the main psychoactive element in cannabis).

She noted that in the absence of regulations, companies will push the 
envelope to make a profit.

"You have established new corporate and consumer interests, and it's 
very hard then to roll that back," she said.

The center's director of research, Amy Porath-Waller, said that the 
health effects of marijuana on adolescents must be considered. 
Studies show that daily or weekly cannabis use can slow brain 
development and impair cognitive functioning, memory and decision-making.

"It's not clear yet if these deficits last beyond a month [of 
nonuse], if they are permanent, irreversible," she said. "These are 
areas of active research."

Nor is it clear, she added, whether occasional users are similarly affected.

Canada legalized medical marijuana about 15 years ago. Canada's 
health department has so far issued 26 production and distribution 
licenses to about 20 companies.

Recent mergers and acquisitions indicate an industry consolidation as 
companies compete fora bigger share of a still-developing business, 
which Canada's health department claims has about 450,000 potential 
daily customers. At current prices, that represents an industry worth 
1.2 billion Canadian dollars - about $900 million.

Canopy Growth, which operates out of a former Hershey's chocolate 
factory in the small town of Smiths Falls, Ontario, recently bought 
two additional medical pot producers and is eager to expand into the 
recreational market.

So too are investors. When Justin Trudeau's Liberals won the October 
election, Canopy's stock price jumped to $3.65, from $1.50, before 
falling back to the $2.30-$2.50 range, which puts the company's value 
at about 220 million Canadian dollars (roughly $164 million).

Canopy, the largest medical marijuana company in Canada, has 7,300 
registered medical customers and is "very well positioned" to jump 
into the recreational market, company founder and chief executive 
Bruce Linton said.

"We already have been ramping up to be ready for that," he said.

He said the medical marijuana production model should be transferred 
to general use. Production has to be completely natural, using no 
chemicals. Packaging is restrained. Sales could be made through the 
same type of government-owned outlets that sell alcohol in most of Canada.

Law professor Oscapella, however, looks at the growth of companies 
like Canopy as a potential nightmare. He fears the concentration of 
corporate power into "Big Pot," with the kind of vested interests 
associated with global alcohol and tobacco companies.

"My goal is to have what is inevitable in our society be as safe as 
possible and to try to discourage harmful use," he said. "That is 
very different from what big industry would want with cannabis."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom