By Danielle Elliott
A Liberal Senate forum in late February signified the Trudeau government taking its first tentative steps down the road to legalization. Yet, if anything, the hearings demonstrated gaps in research and philosophical divides in regulatory approach that the country needs to consider as it contemplates a homegrown solution.
The small room 160-S in centre block at Parliament Hill probably hasn’t seen so much excitement in years. Advocates waited on the edges of the room, either speaking to the press or handing out pamphlets. Some passed around a petition. Snow and rain pelted outside turning the roads into a slushy mess. Still, the public had come out to hear them.
This was the turnout to the open caucus Liberal Senate Forum on the Legalization of Marijuana last Wednesday. All of this, just to inform a few senators on the questions of how-and-when methods regarding the legalization of cannabis in Canada should be undertaken.
Activists have fought for years in favour of the legalization of cannabis and it looks like the time is now. So why are they still unhappy?
Can I smoke it now?
Jodie Emery, came out of the forum telling the media she felt the attitude was more positive than she initially anticipated. Still, she has criticisms.
“My immediate request to the Prime Minister is please stop arresting peaceful Canadians for pot possession,” Emery told the CBC. “We really need to see immediate movement on that. Not one more Canadian should get a criminal record for pot when they’re expected to buy it legally a year or more from now.”
The government ultimately is the only body with the power to put laws on moratorium, but Karla O’Regan, a St. Thomas University criminology professor, said some police forces might already be inclined to turn a blind eye to marijuana possession related offences.
“So, a group of adults who you find huddled in a back alley, smoking a joint at say Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival, has a very little legal consequence,” said O’Regan. “It uses so much police time and effort for what effectively is going be, well, a nuisance.”
O’Regan said police response is largely dependent on the jurisdiction and community perception of drug offences in that area. Dispensaries have opened up across British Columbia and police have essentially ignored them. Vancouver actually has protected dispensaries. In other areas where the culture is less accepted in the community, O’Regan said arrests are more likely to continue for the time being.
Can I grow it home?
Elsewhere in Ottawa medicinal marijuana patients were anxiously awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision whether or not to reverse regulations that banned patients from growing their medicinal plants at home. Before the decision, patients were required to mail-order their marijuana from licensed medicinal growers.
The suit was launched by four B.C. residents who felt their charter rights had been violated. The Supreme Court ruled in their favour and advocates everywhere, including Emery celebrated. She feels even once recreational use is legalized, the ability to grow the plants yourself should be protected.
“The more options the better,” Emery told the CBC. “If we move to try and restrict access to marijuana, there will be a black market that takes place and will continue to control that.”
NORML, The National Organization for Reform on Marijuana Law also advocates for the right to produce at home, comparing it to home-made wine or beer.
This topic was much more controversial when it came to the senate forum. Rebecca Jesseman, the senior policy advisor for the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, said lessons we’ve learned from legalization in Colorado means it’s easier to operate in one system of legalization than duel systems of medicinal and recreational use.
She also advocates for strict regulations against home production of cannabis.
Clive Weighill, president of the Canadian Association of Police Chiefs echoed Jesseman’s opinion, stating that strong regulatory framework regarding the production and sale of cannabis in order to keep it out of the hands of minors.
“It would be naïve to believe organized crime will not attempt to infiltrate any available segment associated to the production, cultivation or the sale of marijuana.” Weighill told the audience at the senate forum.
How will know what I’m buying?
Jesseman also advised strict control over the ways the product is sold. This includes avoiding edibles that may appeal to children and using childproof packaging with health warnings clearly indicated. Product testing for pesticides, mold and potency were also a concern to Jesseman – something that couldn’t be controlled in home growing.
Sean Myles, a genetic researcher from Dalhousie University adds some weight to the discussion on product control. In 2015, his research lab, Cultivating Diversity, released their research findings on genetic differences between marijuana and hemp – but also on different strains of marijuana.
This research found in about a third of cases, strains were mislabeled and their names were not reliable sources of identification.
“It’s got a really clandestine history, this plant,” said Myles. “It’s been breeding in the underground with no formal horticultural registration system and no way of being able to identify the identity of these plants.”
Myles claims this has resulted in growers selling whatever products they like under any name, without any repercussion as consumers are none the wiser. He feels the regulation of breeding may help the industry sort out the “mess” that’s been created as a result of criminalization.
“I think cannabis culture is one where these ideas of regulation and rules, these sorts of things, don’t jive really well,” said Myles. “But in the end, I think there is an interest among real medicinal marijuana patients to know what kind of plants that they’re getting.”
Research, research research
Emery made a statement at the forum pleading for current producers and dispensaries to be included in the
consultation process as their knowledge would be beneficial to the process. A senator requested studies be carried out on the effects of marijuana on youth suffering with mental conditions. A request for more knowledge was reflected across the board.
“We need to begin by clearly defining our objectives, we also need to ensure we are able to measure our progress toward those objects and to make adjustments as required,” Jesseman said. “That means dedicating resources to collect baseline and ongoing data across sectors to monitor the new regulations, it also means investing in research to fill knowledge gaps.”
Myles added Canada is already the leader regarding the chemical research of marijuana; there would be plenty of new jobs for those who are prepared to fix the genetic problems the plant faces.
“Canada is taking this very seriously, especially since it’s being considered to being legalized for recreational use,” said Myles. “Canada definitely is a leader and we’ll see more and more of this.”