The Current

'Legalization 1.0': Cannabis is legal now, but what problems still need to be solved?

The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti hosted a town hall event to discuss the road to the legalization of cannabis in Canada, and the bumps that still lie in the road ahead.

At The Current's town hall, experts warn legalization plan still has unresolved issues

Fingers hold the end of a joint of marijuana under a flame.
The people who drafted the legislation had to find a balance that could satisfy both pro-legalization advocates and prohibitionists, said activist Hilary Black. (Joe Mahoney/Canadian Press)

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Cannabis may now be legal in Canada, but there are still many problems and issues to be resolved, according to a veteran advocate for the drug's legalization.

"I call it legalization 1.0," said Hilary Black, who has been campaigning for cannabis legalization since her teens. "There is a lot of work left to be done. This is not perfect legislation." 

The people who drafted the legislation "had to thread a needle," she said, and find a balance that could satisfy both pro-legalization advocates and prohibitionists.

Black made the remarks Monday night at The Current's town hall event on cannabis legalization, which was held at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa.

The panellists discussed issues ranging from the price consumers could expect to pay, to whether their private data could be used against them at border checkpoints. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

To discuss the challenges that Canada will face in implementing legalization, host Anna Maria Tremonti was joined by:

  • Bill Blair, minister of border security and organized crime reduction 
  • Hilary Black, founder of the B.C. Compassion Club Society, and director of patient education and advocacy with Canopy Growth
  • Manisha Krishnan, senior writer at Vice Media 
  • Eugene Oscapella, a lawyer and professor of criminology and drug policy at the University of Ottawa
Cannabis and cash seized by police in Flin Flon, Man., last month. (Submitted by RCMP)

Will legalization quash crime?

Crime bosses have lost "the easiest money they ever made," according to Bill Blair.

Billions of dollars in profit from the sale of marijuana goes to organized crime every year, said Blair, who was chief of the Toronto Police Service from 2005-2015. That money fuels gun violence and other criminal activity, he added.

"Cannabis doesn't kill, but cannabis trafficking can, and so by eliminating that illicit business, there's a whole bunch of very positive things can happen," he said.

On the morning of legalization, the federal government announced what it calls a simplified way to expedite pardons for Canadians convicted of possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana.

Bill Blair at The Current's town hall event on cannabis legalization, Oct. 15, 2018. He said that eliminating the illegal trade in cannabis could lead to widespread social benefits. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

Eliminating that illicit business, however, will rely on consumers moving away from the black market.

Lawyer Eugene Oscapella said that it would take time for that to happen.

"It's much easier to go to a place where you've got a reasonably priced product, of known quality, than to go to a criminal organization," he said.

"My students go to the liquor store. They don't get liquor on the illegal market," he added.

A cannabis dispensary in Hamilton, Ont. All dispensaries in the province were told to close by Oct. 17, or risk being disqualified from applying for a legal licence. (Evan Mitsui/CBCNews)

Shifting consumers to the legal market will come down to accessibility, availability and price, said Manisha Krishnan.

Krishnan, who has been covering cannabis legalization for Vice, added that a shortage of brick-and-mortar stores in some provinces could make that move more difficult.

On legalization day, B.C. will have one physical store selling cannabis. Ontario will have none.

"The average gram for black-market weed is around $8," she said. After adding government taxes, legally sold cannabis will likely be more expensive.

Manisha Krishnan said that a shortage of brick-and-mortar stores in some provinces could make eliminating the black market difficult. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

"If you've been using a black market dealer for 10, 20 years who gives you a great deal, I don't really know why you would be inclined to switch over unless it's competitive with that."

Cannabis and the U.S. border

Speaking on CBC's Power & Politics in September, Blair said that Canadians should expect to be taken aside for a secondary U.S. border check if they "show up at the border looking like Cheech and Chong."

One month to go before pot legalization

5 years ago
Duration 8:51
'Frankly if you show up at the border looking like Cheech and Chong, you're going into secondary,' says the government's pot lead, Min. Bill Blair.

He echoed that sentiment at the town hall event.

"That's a pretty iconic image that most Canadians are familiar with: the idea of rolling up in the car and the smoke billowing out the windows," he said.

"That's definitely getting you into secondary, so just be smart about going to the border."

Blair stressed that it was illegal for any Canadian to attempt to bring cannabis across the border to the U.S. in the same way U.S. citizens could not bring their firearms in the other direction.

Canadians seeking to enter the U.S. should present themselves at the border 'appropriately,' Blair told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

Last month, an official at U.S. Customs and Border Protection suggested anyone working in Canada's legal cannabis industry would be barred from entering the U.S., where the drug is still prohibited.

The agency updated its website on Oct. 9 to say workers would be allowed to enter, but Krishnan said the language used meant there were still uncertainties.

"They described cannabis users ... as drug addicts and drug abusers, and they said drug addicts and drug abusers are not welcome in the United States," she said.

"So that kind of tells you how they view cannabis consumers.

Cars from Canada line up to cross into the U.S. in Blaine, Wash. Border agents could have access to information beyond your social media accounts, Oscapella said. (Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press)

Buying online and privacy concerns

Krishnan also pointed out that as sales will be conducted online in every province, customers' information could be accessed through credit card records.

"I would be pretty concerned," she said. "But it's like, what is the advice? Do you lie? Maybe."

Oscapella warned that lying to a U.S. federal official is an offence.

Anna Maria Tremonti talks with Hilary Black, Eugene Oscapella and Manisha Krishnan at The Current's town hall event on cannabis legalization, Oct. 15, 2018. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

"If you don't tell the truth and then they Google you and find out that you've just been bragging on Facebook about that great pot party you attended on the weekend, you might be in real trouble," he said.

He agreed with Krishnan that border agents could have access to information beyond your social media accounts.

"Anybody who's been watching the news over recent years has been hearing about how the National Security Agency in the United States has been vacuuming up databases from around the world," he said.

"It's very troubling to think that your information could be used against you."

Hilary Black has been a vocal campaigner for cannabis legalization for decades. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

As a long-time activist, Black has long dealt with the fact that information about her history of using the drug is widely available.

"I have openly admitted to breaking the law around distributing cannabis for 22 years, so they would have lots of grounds to not let me in," she said.

"I hope the next time that I cross the border that they don't Google me, or I'll never be allowed in the country again," she joked.

She said she's been given legal advice to only enter the U.S. if she passes through a custom and border check in the airport she leaves from, not the one where she arrives.

"If the conversation goes sideways, they could detain you for quite a long time," she explained.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page.

Written by Padraig Moran. The Current's town hall event was produced by Kathleen Goldhar, Geoff Turner, Kristin Nelson and Karin Marley.