OTTAWA – Wednesday was the first day of legalized recreational marijuana in Canada, an era the federal government has been rolling towards for years.
As of midnight Oct. 17, it is legal for adults in Canada to legally possess, grow, and use small amounts of recreational cannabis. This makes Canada the world’s largest country with legal pot sales.
During the 2015 federal election campaign, the Liberals promised to legalize and regulate marijuana. Years later — following consultations and a winding legislative process — Parliament passed Bill C-45 and Bill C-45, the government legislation that set up the new legalized regime and corresponding impaired driving law. On June 20, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that marijuana would be legal on Oct. 17. At the time, he said legalization will be a process and not “a single-day event.”
Trudeau and his government have framed legalization as an effort to protect kids and eliminate the black market. Speaking with reporters outside of the Liberal caucus room Wednesday morning, Trudeau said the new regime his government has ushered in will achieve that goal, making it harder for young people to access cannabis, while keeping the profits out of criminals’ hands.
“One of the things that we recognized is that there has been a failure of public policy. The prohibition on marijuana has not worked in this country,” Trudeau said.
If you didn’t know it was the day Canada lifted the prohibition on pot, the scene on Parliament Hill wouldn’t have been a strong indication. The issue didn’t dominate question period, and come 4:20 p.m. there was just a small group of people gathered around the centennial flame lighting celebratory joints.
“I came out here tonight, because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Weed’s not going to get legalized twice so I wanted to see what this big historic event was all about,” 20-year-old Max Whitehead told CTV News on Parliament Hill.
Ministers mark ‘historic’ day, more to come
Just down the street from Parliament Hill, the federal ministers involved with legalizing marijuana held a joint press conference discussing the process leading up to this “historic” day, and what needs to happen going forward.
At the press conference, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor, and Border Security and Organized Crime Minister Bill Blair spoke with reporters about the process leading up to Wednesday.
“Today the government has delivered on our promise,” Blair said. “Today for the first time there is competition in the marketplace. For the first time adult Canadians who choose to consume cannabis have a safer, lower-risk, healthier, and more socially responsible choice. They can choose to do this legally in this country, today.”
The main announcement made by the ministers Wednesday was that the federal government will be bringing forward legislation to pardon people who have past simple possession charges, though it could be some time before those pardons are granted.
“There is no question that the world is watching Canada,” said Wilson-Raybould, calling it a “progressive” policy step.
She and the other ministers also made sure to caution Canadians about the health and safety concerns that come with this new regime, imploring them not to consume cannabis and drive, and to further educate themselves on the rules and regulations.
The ministers also made clear that there will be more work ahead as the country transitions to legalization. Among what’s left: regulations for edibles, and approving more drug-detecting devices.
Political risk, wide-spanning critique
Goodale was asked about the politics of legalizing marijuana, with the next federal election nearly a year way. He said the Liberals’ move to legalize marijuana has been “broadly supported” by Canadians.
“We have gone, as you know, to extraordinary lengths to engage all Canadians in the conversation about how to change the law and bring us to the point where we are today,” Goodale said.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said Canada will soon see the consequences of what he considers a “rushed” rollout in the name of an “artificial political deadline.”
“When people start to see these consequences they’re going to blame Trudeau’s failures for it,” Scheer said. “We’re going to start to see the pushback, the anger from Canadians who are concerned that the government has adopted this approach.”
Scheer said he will evaluate how the rollout goes based on feedback he hears, and would propose changes to the legalized regime accordingly. He did not directly speak to on whether the Conservatives would campaign against legalization come 2019.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh took a different line of critique, focusing his concern on the plan to pardon people with past pot possession charges. He thinks the government is not going far enough by not fully expunging these criminal records. He also said if he was in charge of legalization, he would have decriminalized the drug prior to it becoming legal.
Though, Singh will not be partaking in legal weed. “Growing up I witnessed the impacts of drug use firsthand and addiction firsthand and so I made a commitment in my life to never use any drugs so I don’t use any,” he said.
A recent Nanos Research survey found that nearly 8 in 10 Canadians are uninterested in smoking cannabis once legal.
In an interview with CTV News, pollster Nik Nanos said that there still is political risk possible for the government as the rollout continues, despite it being a campaign promise kept. He said he doesn’t anticipate Trudeau gaining supporters for legalizing cannabis, rather just pleasing the ones he already has.
“The Liberals have to watch to out. If any time during the next year something goes wrong, someone is killed in a car accident under the influence of marijuana, if there’s a perception that young people are smoking marijuana more so as a result, compared to the past, there will be people that will point at that and blame the Liberals,” he said.