If all goes according to plan, Canada will be the biggest fully recreational marijuana market in the world. But as we've seen from other legalized adult-use markets, there will be hurdles to clear in the early stages, and the takeoff won't be without flaws.
Fortunately, there are U.S. states like Colorado—the first state to legalize cannabis—and California—the latest state to legalize marijuana—that Canada can learn from to avoid disaster. Here are four things that Canada can learn from how California and Colorado legalized cannabis so they get it right from the start.
1. Averting Marijuana Shortages
When it legalized recreational cannabis in 2014, Colorado watched products get wiped from dispensary shelves due to more having customers than cannabis plants. Shops had to wait on an entirely new harvest before they could replenish their stock.
Because California let each county decide on the nuts and bolts of how legalization would look in their area, many were slow to nail down how they would license the different cannabis industry companies; subsequently they weren’t ready to grant those permits in time for legalization. But they did manage to avert a cannabis shortage by giving out temporary permits to support businesses in the supply chain—and decided not to apply limits on who could distribute cannabis.
The Canadian government reported that licensed producers (LPs)—companies licensed to grow, process and distribute marijuana—had roughly 25 tonnes of inventory as of July. But according to Statistics Canada, Canadians smoke approximately 700 tonnes of marijuana each year. So, Health Canada has dramatically increased the number of LPs from 37 to 82. This should help boost cannabis inventories before legalization kicks in.
2. Dealing With Residents Who Don’t Want Cannabis Retail Stores
One important question mark in Canada’s legalization plan is whether Canadians will even accept government-sanctioned cannabis shops in their city or town. The provinces haven’t been hesitant about the legalization plan, but it's the municipalities that don't want retail stores selling marijuana in their neighbourhoods.
Both California and Colorado allowed cities and towns to decide for themselves whether they wanted recreational marijuana sold there. For example, in Colorado, the city of Vail said no while Denver said yes.
This kind of flexibility could help in a province like Ontario, which is only proposing 40 government-run marijuana stores by the time legalization rolls out. That’s one store for every 250,000 adults, and there should be at least 40 places willing to accept a store upfront.
Once the residents and city councils see how it goes with the initial establishments, they may be open to hosting one of the hundreds of stores Ontario plans to open by 2020.
3. Reducing Punishments for Past Marijuana Crimes That Aren’t Crimes Now
It's unjust to change the legislation regarding marijuana and continue to punish those sentenced for crimes that are now not crimes at all.
That's why in November 2017, Colorado's Governor John Hickenlooper pardoned seven people convicted of marijuana possession. Now, reports say he's looking to do even more, contemplating releasing around 40 inmates convicted of nonviolent marijuana offences.
Meanwhile, a component of California's legal adult-use cannabis law, Proposition 64, is resentencing marijuana convictions—provided the person isn't a threat to public safety—by dismissing or lessening cannabis felonies and misdemeanours.
San Diego got a head start and has already reduced 680 convictions, from felonies to misdemeanours.They’re still looking into thousands more cases that may be eligible to be reexamined under Prop 64. Anyone who has also been convicted of a violent crime isn’t eligible to have their past cannabis crime reclassified.
San Francisco announced that they’ll look at thousands of marijuana convictions from the past and apply the current cannabis rules. This means that people could have their sentences for marijuana crimes reduced or thrown out altogether.
Canada’s thinking about taking measures to pardon past cannabis offences, but nothing’s set in stone.
Even after the Liberal party announced in 2016 that cannabis would be legal for all adults, Statistics Canada counted 55,000 cannabis-related charges—76% of them were for possession. Many of these convictions disproportionately target people of colour and low-income citizens. The numbers of these so-called “criminals” will continue to climb until it’s federally legal and provincially regulated.
All that’s known for now is that the Canadian government is examining the implications of possible pardons or record suspensions for marijuana crimes. However, no action would be taken until after cannabis becomes legal.
4. Allowing Cannabis Edibles
When legalization unfolds in the summer, Canadians will be able to buy dried flower and oils but not much else.
In California and Colorado, edibles are quickly replacing dried marijuana as the product of choice for consumers. The demand is significant, and the range of products dramatically differentiates the legal market from the illicit one. And, at a time when experts are worried about the health impacts of smoking cannabis, it's mind-boggling that the government would want to limit consumers to products that mostly require combustion.
Edibles helped Colorado hit $1.51 billion in sales of cannabis products in 2017. Though it did create some regulations around edibles, including Colorado House Bill 1436. This bill prohibits gummy bear-shaped edibles and anything marijuana-infused that resembles humans, animals and fruit shapes so as not to appeal to children. Plus, Colorado customers are restricted to buying just 800 mg of edibles at one time.
California included edibles in Prop 64, therefore allowing these popular products to elevate tax revenues. California has, however, limited the overall amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in one package of edibles and made several rule changes to how packaging functions and what information is required to be printed on packaging.
A 2017 study by Dalhousie University found that 46% of Canadians are interested in trying cannabis-infused food products. But only 20% said that they knew enough about cooking with cannabis to do it at home. So, it's likely that edibles would be extremely popular were they to hit the market in Canada.
Canada does have plans for edibles to become available, but we shouldn't expect products to appear on shelves until at least 2019.
Photo credit: Jurassic Blueberries