Opinion

Canada's rushed rollout of legal cannabis has been a gift to the illegal market

All 12 stores in Quebec have closed Monday to Wednesday as a result of supply shortages. A rotating Canada Post strike has throttled online sales deliveries. Meanwhile private storefronts, though illegal in Quebec, are as close as a Google search away.

Legalization has seen conflicting laws, massive supply chokepoints and comparatively high prices

All 12 stores in Quebec have closed Monday to Wednesday as a result of supply shortages. A rotating Canada Post strike has throttled online sales deliveries. Meanwhile private storefronts, though illegal in Quebec, are as close as a Google search away. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Officially, the Liberal Party wanted to legalize marijuana in order to remove the "criminal organizations, street gangs and gun-runners" associated with the drug, as Justin Trudeau put in a pithy bit of hyperbole during the 2015 election campaign.

Legalizing cannabis also brought instant street cred to the Liberal brand, and a demonstrable uptick in millennial support for the party as a result. For the opposition Conservatives, it must be a particularly cruel joke: Trudeau flits about the world in shirtsleeves, earnestly putting the torch to Stephen Harper's populist legacy, thanks in no small part part to pot legalization.

Yet while legalization has been a political victory for the Liberal government, the hasty rollout of the policy has been decidedly mixed, resulting in often-conflicting laws, massive supply chokepoints and comparatively high prices for what has been a relatively cheap, ubiquitous if illegal product for decades. All of this has been manna for the black market, the very entity Trudeau sought to eliminate in the first place.

Exactly why the Liberal government rushed legalization is likely a political, not social, consideration. Given that legalization has met the most resistance amongst older, suburban voters — who figure heavily in the considerations of both the Liberals and opposition Conservatives — having the question on the ballot would arguably detrimental to Liberal fortunes in 2019. Hence the importance of legalizing it well before the 2019 election.  

Demand for illegal cannabis remains high in Quebec, in large part because the province's bricks-and-mortar outlets and online store simply can't keep up. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

"Victor," which isn't anywhere close to his real name, is thankful for botched legalization. He has grown weed in a far-flung Montreal exurb upwards of three decades. Apart from being an immediate threat to his bottom line, legalization has meant a potentially detrimental effect on his freedom.

On Oct. 16, the day before Canada became the largest market for recreational marijuana in the world, an arrest meant a short jail sentence at worst. Today, under the enhanced laws designed to stamp out people like him, getting caught could mean 14 years in prison. 

Yet nothing has changed for the 49-year-old father of two since legalization roughly a month ago. "Business as usual," he said from a Montreal coffee shop recently, plunking a thumb-sized example of his bounty on the table as evidence.

His production yields, supply lines and clients are identical, as is the $100 price he commands for an ounce of Headbanger, Banana Punch and Mimosa, the three lines he grows, cures and clips throughout the year. He is currently and happily "100 per cent out of stock," he says.

Half of N.B.’s cannabis stores were closed Monday. 0:51

In Quebec, which as in many provinces is home to a government monopoly on the sale of legal marijuana, Victor has carved out a niche in the chaotic wake of legalization. Demand remains high, in large part because the province's bricks-and-mortar outlets and online store simply can't keep up.

All 12 stores have closed Monday to Wednesday as a result of supply shortages. A rotating Canada Post strike has throttled online sales deliveries. Meanwhile private storefronts, though illegal in Quebec, are as close as a Google search away.

It has only reinforced the often-well deserved stereotype that government is slow moving, bureaucratically blinkered and unconcerned about anything beyond the hovering of tax dollars.

Moreover, these stores sell the mass-produced Bud Light of weed, complete with tax stamp. Blessed with low overhead and unburdened by the taxman, Victor and other smaller, patently illegal weed purveyors sell VSOP cognac at half the price. "We also offer a money-back return policy. You don't get that in the stores," Victor says.

In Quebec, illegal weed also remains in demand for another reason. The province's newly-elected Coalition Avenir Québec government has vowed to increase the required age to buy legal weed to 21. The CAQ says it did so for public health reasons. Yet the restriction will essentially render the decidedly weed-hungry 18-to-20 demographic captive to the black market. The province has furthered the black market's appeal by prohibiting the growing of marijuana for personal use — a provision specifically allowed in the federal law.

Quebec's differing regulations underscore another bugaboo of Canada's legalization. Each province has a different take on the federal law. For example, New Brunswick treats marijuana much like alcohol, only allowing it to be consumed on private property. In neighbouring Nova Scotia, weed is more akin to tobacco, consumable in certain public places. How to enforce cannabis-related driving laws is equally patchwork. if only because — as a top RCMP officer recently told the CBC — there isn't yet a viable roadside test available to police.

Victor knows legalization will ultimately suffocate much of the illegal market. But he says the cacophony resulting from the abrupt, politically motivated legalization will allow him to eke out a very decent living for the foreseeable future. "I sell a higher end product for a better price than the government," he says. "It's that simple."

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

About the Author

Martin Patriquin

Martin Patriquin is a Montreal writer and political commentator.