The marijuana nightmare: Trudeau is legalizing weed, but it hasn't been pretty - Macleans.ca

The marijuana nightmare: Trudeau is legalizing weed, but it hasn’t been pretty

Meddling senators, confusing laws and troubling new health research—Justin Trudeau’s legacy legislation legalizing weed is happening, but it won’t be pretty

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Smoke lingers over Parliament Hill as people smoke marijuana during the annual 4/20 rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario on April 20, 2018. (Lars Hagberg/AFP/Getty Images)

Glimpses of bygone Upper Canada flit by on a spring morning drive along Highway 15 through the eastern Ontario countryside. An old stone church, then a squared-timber house, a split-rail fence and the “Lilac Capital of Ontario” sign as you reach Franktown. A little farther up the road, about an hour southwest of Ottawa, Smiths Falls offers more of the same. The stately pillared entrance of the library built in 1903 and the historic locks on the 19th-century Rideau Canal. But there’s no road sign—at least not yet—boasting that what Franktown is to lilacs, Smith Falls is to marijuana.

It’s here that pot’s bid for respectability in Canada has most firmly taken root. Smiths Falls lost 400 jobs when Hershey Co. departed in 2008—not the first big employer to abandon the town of about 9,000. So when the medical marijuana company Canopy Growth Inc. took over the former chocolate factory at 1 Hershey Drive six years later, there was no local blowback. “Nothing negative other than the jokes—‘Oh, you’re going to be the pot capital of Canada now,’ ” recalls Smiths Falls Mayor Shawn Pankow. “Well, yes, we are.”

Between 2000 and 2016, a string of court cases erased most legal restrictions on medical cannabis in Canada. That’s translated into about 500 good jobs in Smiths Falls. Justin Trudeau’s legalization of smoking pot for fun—now expected to take effect by this fall—has heightened the economic-opportunity buzz. The parking lot at Canopy Growth’s Smiths Falls operation overflows with workers’ cars, and construction crews are busy expanding the facility. If it weren’t for the telltale scent of fresh weed in the air, an accidental visitor might guess this was a booming auto parts factory, say, or maybe a thriving fertilizer plant.

But the big sign by the main entrance is emblazoned with the “Tweed” logo, rendered in the cursive script of a classic baseball team emblem. Tweed is, Canopy Growth boasts, “the most recognized cannabis brand in the world.” That marketing vibe continues inside. The lobby has the look of an oversized, upscale coffee shop. It’s here that Jordan Sinclair, vice-president of media and communications, meets a Maclean’s reporter—two days after Canopy Growth’s announcement on May 14 that it has applied to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange—to offer a guided tour.

Donning the white lab coat and sterile shoe coverings required of everyone who enters the spotless facility, Sinclair leads the way on a circuit of wide, white-painted corridors connecting climate-controlled rooms where pot plants at various stages of growth are neatly arrayed. Asked about the pristine production spaces, he recalls how the factory sat empty and deteriorating for a few years after Hershey left. “It would have been a good Walking Dead set,” he says.

Not now. Sinclair pauses at a window and looks into a gleaming room where the rows of plants are labelled with throwback hippy names like Penelope, Kosher Kush, Sunshine and Moonbeam. “These are the mom plants,” he explains. “The most valuable in our business.” The moms, carefully selected for their genetic characteristics, provide the clones for thousands of plants maturing in the sequence of rooms that follow. “These are the babies,” he says at the next window. “This is a nursery.”

In another grow room, where bigger plants are being coaxed to flower, he points out that each has a hospital bracelet around its stem, allowing for meticulous tracking. What’s cultivated here gets around. For instance, early this year, 100,000 seedlings were flown from Smiths Falls to Canopy Growth’s extensive greenhouse operations in Langley, B.C. Sinclair pauses to chat with a colleague who is giving a tour to a group of experienced pink-tomato producers who will soon be growing Tweed pot under contract in Quebec. As well, Canopy Growth has beachheads abroad, including in Australia and Spain, and has plans for a big greenhouse in Denmark, to be stocked with plants from Smiths Falls.

One of Canopy Growth’s new B.C. greenhouses in Aldergrove. (Photograph by Jimmy Jeong)

The world beckons, but the domestic market, for now at least, demands more urgent attention. The Smiths Falls facility was built to supply medical cannabis users. It grows, processes, packages and ships, not just dried bud for smoking (including Tweed’s core “Bakerstreet” dried Hindu kush), but also oils, which can be consumed with food, and translucent amber gelcaps. Behind a big steel door, the shelves of the storage centre called “the vault” are stocked up in expectation of filling massive orders from the provincial wholesalers when legalization of non-medical marijuana becomes a nationwide reality.

Smiths Falls feels more than ready, but a smooth rollout for legalization across the country is far from assured. The federal government tabled its bill to legalize marijuana in spring 2017, aiming to enact it by summer 2018. But, after no fewer than five Senate committees agonized over every aspect of the legislation, the upper chamber finally passed it only last week. MPs must now decide whether or not to accept about 40 Senate amendments sent back to the House. Insiders speculate that the law will likely clear its final parliamentary hurdles late this month, and be brought into force in September or October.

In fact, any delays will be welcome in many quarters. Provinces are only now scrambling to set up pot retailing networks, including finding locations for stores acceptable to often nervous communities, and establishing wholesaling operations capable of buying large quantities of weed from producers who previously distributed their own medical cannabis. Police forces are struggling to figure out how to test for drug-impaired driving, how strictly to enforce limits on growing weed at home and how hard to crack down on illegal weed dispensaries.

For the Prime Minister, the stakes are high, but the fact that this is a transformative initiative isn’t really in doubt. That makes legalizing pot stand out from other ambitious elements of Trudeau’s agenda—like boosting middle-class prosperity, fostering gender equality or reworking Canada’s peacekeeping strategy—which are all long-term projects whose lasting impacts remain uncertain.

By contrast, Trudeau’s marijuana reforms are undeniably bold and a done deal—even if provinces gripe that he left them the heavy lifting on regulating sales. “Ottawa has just very conveniently said, ‘We’ll legalize cannabis, you provinces figure out how to do it,’ ” says Blaine Pedersen, the growth, enterprise and trade minister in Manitoba’s Conservative government.

Legalizing pot is a defining element in Trudeau’s persona, too. He announced his intention in B.C. in the summer of 2013—his first major policy pledge as Liberal leader. “Tax it, regulate,” he said then. “It’s one of the only ways to keep it out of the hands of our kids because the current war on drugs, the current model, is not working.” Soon after, Trudeau told the Huffington Post he “took a puff” on a joint being passed around at a dinner party at his Montreal home in 2008, after he was elected as an MP. Conservatives pounced, but the admission didn’t noticeably hurt him.

Trudeau has said marijuana is “not my thing,” and that he’s tried it only five or six times in his life. Yet pot features in his family saga. He revealed last year to Vice News that his brother Michel, six months before dying in an avalanche in 1998, was charged with possession. Their father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, used his connections to prevent Michel from being burdened with a criminal record. (Even so, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale recently told Canadian Press that a general amnesty for past marijuana possession convictions is “not on the agenda at the moment.”)

And, in a 2007 speech to a mental health conference in Vancouver, Trudeau’s mother, Margaret, drew a close connection between smoking pot and her own long struggle with mental illness. “I loved marijuana—I was a hippie in the ’60s,” she said, adding, “Strawberry Fields Forever and all that.” She landed in hospital three times for mental illness, and was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder. “Every time I was hospitalized,” she said, “it was preceded by heavy use of marijuana.” Despite living that cautionary tale, she has more recently said she supports her son’s push to legalize and regulate pot.

READ MORE: Here’s what we know about who uses cannabis in Canada, and how 

Justin Trudeau has always stressed that his goal isn’t to normalize weed but to deny profits to criminal dealers and, especially, make it harder for young people to get pot. “Right now,” he claims, “it’s way easier to get a joint than a bottle of beer.” If that’s true, then changing the rules on marijuana to be more like those on alcohol should work. Trudeau’s law makes it a crime to sell to anyone younger than 18 (some provinces set higher age limits). Packaging and promotion that might appeal to young people won’t be allowed, and penalties for selling to them are stiff—up to 14 years in jail.

Yet many substance-abuse experts are skeptical that regulation will actually reduce use of pot among youths. After all, the authoritative Canadian Student Tobacco, Alcohol and Drug Survey found in 2014-15 that fully 67 per cent of students in Grades 7 to 12 said it is “very easy” or “fairly easy” to get alcohol, but just 41 per cent found it easy to get marijuana. According to the same survey, 40 per cent of Grade 7 to 12 students reported drinking alcohol in the past 12 months, more than double the 17 per cent who said they had smoked marijuana in that period.

Those numbers don’t make booze-like rules and restrictions look like the obvious way to reduce youth pot use. And a new study that’s bound to attract wide attention supports the argument that shrugging at teenagers smoking weed is a bad idea. Researchers at Montreal’s CHU Sainte-Justine hospital and Université de Montréal followed about 4,000 high school students from Grade 7 to Grade 11. Each year, starting in 2012-13, the students filled out detailed questionnaires on their marijuana use and psychotic symptoms—episodes associated with serious problems like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. “Every year there was a prediction of increasing psychotic-like symptoms as a result of increases in cannabis use,” says Université de Montréal’s Patricia Conrod, the study’s senior author.

READ MORE: Marijuana addiction is real, and teenage users are most at risk

Conrod is a professor in the university’s psychiatry department and an internationally prominent addiction researcher. The study of Montreal teens is being published in the prestigious journal JAMA Psychiatry. She says its findings flag the danger of pot smoking for the roughly seven per cent of adolescents who start out being most susceptible to psychotic episodes. Individuals from this at-risk group who didn’t use cannabis in the Montreal study were less likely to report problems. “What we find is that the direction is cannabis-to-psychosis,” she says. “If they use cannabis, they are more likely to experience more psychotic symptoms a year later.”

A pillar of the Trudeau approach is supposed to be actively discouraging young people from smoking pot. Last fall, the government pledged $46 million over five years for advertising and education. Early on, though, it’s been an underwhelming effort. When senators asked Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor at a recent committee hearing why they haven’t noticed any ads, she suggested the messages aren’t pitched at their greying demographic. What they’d missed, Petitpas Taylor said, included social media and online ads aimed at 13- to 24-year-olds, which she claimed have reached nearly eight million individuals in the target age range.

Not everyone is impressed. “To their credit, they have made this a central part of their approach, and they have devoted not insignificant funding toward it,” says Jeff Blackmer, vice-president for medical professionalism at the Canadian Medical Association. “But we are concerned that we haven’t seen too much so far.”

An employee at Farm Dispensary sorts through jars of marijuana in Vancouver, June 22, 2016. Impatient to test the shifting political boundaries, entrepreneurs in Canada, where recreational marijuana use is still illegal, have gone ahead and opened hundreds of illicit dispensaries across Canada, while local governments and police have tended to look the other way. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times/Redux)

An obvious question arises about pleading with teenagers to think twice about smoking pot: Can that message possibly cut through the inevitable buzz around bringing marijuana into the retailing mainstream for adults? Medical marijuana is already legally sold online and distributed by mail and couriers. For non-medical pot, the provinces are experimenting with widely varying retail systems. For instance, B.C. is opting for a mix of private and public stores; Ontario has given the job entirely to the Liquor Control Board of Ontario; Quebec is also staking out a pot retailing monopoly for its provincial liquor agency.

Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador are launching arguably the most business-friendly approach. Among companies deemed qualified to apply for marijuana retailing licences in Newfoundland is giant Loblaw Co. Ltd., which hopes to sell pot from behind the counter in tobacco shops in its Dominion stores. In Manitoba, the Conservative government awarded four consortiums licences to open stores. Pedersen argues private-sector retailing savvy is essential to out-compete criminals. “Our goal is to eliminate the black market,” he says. “We know we won’t be there on day one, but that’s what the ultimate goal is.”

Nobody seriously expects the new legal stores to squeeze out all illicit sellers anytime soon. Compared to the freewheeling illegal dispensaries—often offering colourful packaging and edible pot products that won’t be allowed in the regulated system—the new legal stores seem bound to appear drab. Ontario’s LCBO plans to open just 40 stores to start—under an exquisitely bland Ontario Cannabis Store “OCS” logo—and grow the chain to 150 stores by 2020. Dessy Pavlova, chair of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy, says that’s nowhere near enough to satisfy demand, even allowing for legal online sales. “Sooner or later they will have to open up to additional retail if they want to curb the black market,” Pavlova says. “They’ll learn that really quickly.”

RELATED: Are we overstating the benefits of medical marijuana? 

Police forces contacted by Maclean’s were reluctant to say anything about what they plan to do about illegal dispensaries, which operate freely in many Canadian cities, after the provincially owned or licensed stores open for business. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) doesn’t expect a consistent approach. “Decisions on enforcement are made at the municipal and/or provincial levels,” says CACP spokesman Tim Smith. “There is no common answer at the national level.” Like the patchwork-in-progress when it comes to provincial retailing, uneven police tolerance levels for illicit weed shops across provinces and cities looks inevitable.

A whole other set of questions swirls around the enforcement of the strict new drug-impaired driving laws that are a key part of Trudeau’s marijuana regulation package. About 40 per cent of drivers killed in car and truck crashes test positive for drugs, compared to 33 per cent for alcohol. But roadside testing for cannabis is tricky. Devices that check for drug content in saliva are being tested for the federal government at the National Research Council’s labs. The government won’t predict, however, how soon cops on traffic duty might actually be using federally approved devices.

Chuck Cox, an Ontario Provincial Police chief superintendent and co-chair of the CACP’s traffic safety committee, says the new devices won’t be definitive anyway in making driving-while-high charges stick. “The way I see it, it’s another tool in the police officer’s kit,” Cox says. “It won’t necessarily prove that an individual is impaired.” The key to laying a charge is often having a driver examined by a trained “drug recognition expert” (DRE). Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that DRE-certified witnesses count as experts in trials. But out of about 22,000 front-line cops in Canada, only about 750 have DRE training. The RCMP is ramping up to certify about 150 more annually for five years.

Driving high is only one concern for police. Another issue is how to enforce restrictions on growing pot at home. The federal law limits home growing to a maximum of four plants. (A federal court ruling in 2016 said the government can’t ban medical users of cannabis from growing their own.) Manitoba and Quebec are trying to ban homegrown pot entirely for non-medical users. Even Manitoba’s Pedersen isn’t pretending, however, that the ban will be strictly policed. “I guess, practically speaking, if the police are driving down the street and they see some plants in the window, they can go and see if there’s a prescription,” he says. “But really our police are busy enough.”

READ MORE: Who else will like marijuana legalization? Economists. 

Indeed, the capacity of police to put teeth in the new laws—on impaired driving, growing at home, illegal stores, selling to teenagers—is a question that looms over legalization. Trudeau’s approach relies on a balance of regulation and enforcement. But will pot really be a policing priority, especially after Canadians have grown so blasé about medical cannabis in recent years? “Right now, our communities are inundated with methamphetamine issues, opioid issues,” says Andy McGrogan, chief of police in Medicine Hat, Alta. “Marijuana has not been a big issue recently.”

But it has been big economic news. Like Smiths Falls, Medicine Hat is luring big-league marijuana production. In April, Aurora Cannabis Inc. announced its plan to build pot greenhouses covering the space of more than 21 football fields just outside the small, staunchly conservative city, about 300 km southeast of Calgary. The prairie climate promises plenty of sunshine, and the municipality pledges to supply cheap electricity. “I’m not embarrassed,” says Medicine Hat Mayor Ted Clugston. “I didn’t legalize marijuana, but I’m going to capitalize on it.”

That sort of economic-development zeal might be why Trudeau’s gamble, no matter how unsteady it looks at the outset, is a good bet to succeed in the end. Just as illicit profits made the long war on pot unwinnable, legal cash flow could make legalization a no-lose proposition. Corporations selling shares and product, cities and towns creating jobs, governments collecting taxes—it all rolls up into a fat incentive to make legalization work.

In Smiths Falls, it already is working. Mayor Pankow, a trim 53-year-old with a neat white goatee who has seen his hometown go from prosperous to precarious and back again, recalls when the would-be marijuana moguls first came around scouting for factory space. “These were high-tech guys, educated guys,” he enthuses. “Good backgrounds, good connections.” That’s the voice of old-fashioned local boosterism talking. But Pankow also sounds like a true believer, coaxing Canadians to abandon any lingering misgivings, catch up with Smiths Falls, and maybe also catch a whiff of a future that anyone can smell in the air out on Hershey Drive.

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