Pot Holes – Canada and Cannabis

“We don’t smoke marijuana in Busby”    –   with apologies to Merle Haggard 

But soon we will … because Parliament has passed legislation to legalize recreational use of marijuana. It’s on its way to the Senate, where it may get a long, hard second look. The big question is the readiness of law enforcement and governments to implement the new laws.

The legislation says adults can have and share 30 grams (one ounce-ish) of pot. You can buy leaves or oil, grow it yourself, or bake brownies and drinks. You can’t give it to minors. If you exceed the limited amounts you get a fine for a small transgression and up to 14 years in jail for real criminal behaviour. You can’t buy edibles just yet.

The rules around impaired driving are:

  • 2 to 5 nanograms (ng) of THC (the psychoactive drug in pot) in blood sample gets you a fine up to $1,000.
  • 5 ng or more get you a summary conviction ($1,000 fine) or even an indictment if you are really buzzed.
  • 0.05% alcohol and 2.5 ng of THC will get you a summary conviction or an indictment.
  • And repeat offenders get the book thrown at them (jail time and larger fines).

The federal government also has rules for producers and products, potencies, seed tracking, and packaging.

Alberta has introduced legislation about distribution and law enforcement:

  • Legal age in Alberta will be 18.
  • AGLC will oversee distribution, and manage enforcement of the retail system.
  • Alberta will have specific guidelines and licence requirements for retailers.
  • Co-location of pot sales with alcohol, pharmaceuticals and tobacco isn’t allowed.
  • The province will operate online sales.

The Alberta penalties for impaired driving will be tougher than federal regulations:

  • Penalties will mirror Alberta’s drunk driving rules; in some cases big fines and jail time.
  • A 90 day license suspension and a 1 year ignition interlock for impaired driving is a minimum.
  • Penalties for giving marijuana to minors will be sharper.

But there are some Big Gorilla Problems that won’t easily go away

Municipal Roles

Municipalities will be involved in business licensing, zoning, and regulating public consumption. Enforcement of impaired driving will be a key role of municipally delivered policing services. Municipalities might experience something similar to what Colorado experienced. Colorado entered the brave new world of legal pot in January 2014:

  • In metro Denver (population 2.6 million) there are more pot stores (almost 400) than Starbucks.
  • Colorado has a 28% state tax and the black market still exists with cheaper product.
  • Adult use of pot increased by 43% between 2013 and 2015.
  • In Colorado, marijuana arrests fell by nearly half from 2012 to 2014.

Kids and Pot

Canadian youth already has one of the highest rates of pot use (13%) in the world. One in 5 teens between 15 and 19 have used cannabis in the past year. That is twice the incidence as for adults. Increased access to legal pot increases the risk for kids:

  • The human brain continues to develop into a person’s early 20’s. Marijuana causes greater harm in a developing brain. MRIs for young regular users show that they have smaller brains, less neural connectivity which means the brain has to work harder to overcome the damage done by THC in pot.
  • There is a clear connection between heavy pot use and lowering of IQs in young people.
  • There are mental health risks; depression and schizophrenia are associated with daily use among young people.
  • There is a correlation between heavy pot use and poorer school performance.
  • There is a higher potential risk for impaired driving and the use of other drugs and alcohol than for older adults. And of course, this could mean more interaction between kids and cops but not in a good way!

So what is being done about this?

  • The federal government has put a hold on edibles.
  • Ontario and New Brunswick raised the age to 19 years.
  • Quebec said no to home grown pot.
  • Governments’ main hope is that public education will have an impact on youth using marijuana. The federal government has allocated about $45 million for public education over the next 5 years. The campaign’s messaging will target teens and young adults, as well as their parents and teachers.
  • The Alberta’s plan does not have a public education element.

Impaired Driving – Its complicated

Pot affects your balance, motor skills, attention span, judgement, and reaction times. So impaired driving can be very dangerous:

  • THC reacts differently in the body compared to alcohol. Its impairment impact depends on how it was ingested and how much.
  • Legislation is based on the amount of THC in the blood stream but that isn’t always a reliable indicator of how THC is reacting in the brain.
  • Drug impairment isn’t easily detected using roadside check-stops and a level of expertise is needed to identify impaired drivers.
  • A number of companies are working on developing breath detection devices but they are at the experimental and testing stages.
  • The RCMP have tested roadside saliva screening devices and hope to roll out the devices before the summer.
  • And when pot and liquor are combined, the impairing effects are much higher. In Colorado last year, nearly 36% of all drivers involved in fatal crashes who tested positive for pot, had also consumed alcohol.

There are big questions about Canada’s state of readiness

Quebec is on record of opposing the July 1st, 2018 implementation date. Manitoba doesn’t like it either.

Among the questions:

  • Who gets the tax and excise revenue?
  • Which government pays for enforcement? Is the $274 million the federal government set aside, going to be enough?
  • Will a public education program aimed at teens really work?
  • Will police forces have the tools and training to address drug impaired driving?

Nor is the consultation process complete. There is a 70-page consultation document (not an easy read) that seeks input. It is mostly aimed at stakeholders, although the general public can complete an online survey.

So the federal government is pushing ahead with its plan and deadline. Next stop for the legislation is the Senate. Perhaps the lack of preparedness and the uncertainties will cause Senators to slow the process down.

While speedy implementation makes good politics – it might result in bad public outcomes