Harper’s cloudy legacy

Harper’s cloudy legacy
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There was an episode of The Simpsons a while back where Homer and company journeyed into Canada to dabble in a little cross-border prescription drug running. While there, at one point Ned encounters what appears to be his Canuck soulmate: an equally mustachioed, overly-cheery, gibberish-spouting nerd. They get along great — until the Canadian gets a little too forward.

“Want to puff on a reef-a-reeno?” he offers, “It’s legal here!”

They warned me Satan would be attractive,” glowers American Ned.

In an episode awash in Canadian stereotypes, it was a predictable gag, but also among the most woefully ill-informed. Despite the widespread perception of countless jealous liberal Americans, pot has never been legal in Canada, and actually represents a realm of continental social policy where American law is significantly more permissive and progressive — at least for the time being.

I’ve been reading a fine book lately entitled Joint Ventures: Inside America’s Almost Legal Marijuana Industry by CNBC reporter Trish Regan, producer of the famed 2008 documentary Marijuana Inc.  As the title suggests, her work offers a fairly comprehensive profile of the robust, pseudo-legal pot-based capitalism currently thriving in the 18 American states that have defied their federal government and approved the drug for medicinal purposes.

These are many places in America, she writes, where it’s nigh-impossible to drive down a major urban stretch without being confronted by block after block of boutique pot dealerships openly and aggressively marketing their goods. Come on in and take a toke, they implore (often with big garish billboards or bikini babes), or just browse our fine wares — the selection and quality can’t be beat! And it’s not just scummy headshops, either; as the American medical cannabis scene gets more entrenched and professionalized, this is increasingly a world of people who take their drug-dealing as seriously as snobbish baristas or artisanal bakers.

Clean, elegant shops and sterile, medical-looking facilities take pains to collect only the most exquisite strains and brands for their equally picky customers. The growers, for their part, are every bit as humourless and hard-working as farmers of corn or cattle, presiding over vast gardens of bud tended with the latest in agricultural technology — and protected with the most vicious security.

Sure, in theory this is all just for the sick and ailing, but with privately-run  clinics in charge of deeming who’s ill enough to qualify, the system has basically been corrupted by the same market forces that long ago made America one of the most over-prescribed nations on the planet. In Colorado alone — a state whose medicinal pot laws are among the most forgiving — the year 2011 saw an average of 400 Coloradans a day scrambling to join the ranks of the state’s 80,000 residents already diagnosed with the mild medley of aches and pains pot is said to mollify. And supply is constantly struggling to meet demand; in the city of Boulder, writes Trish, “there are more dispensaries than Starbucks and liquor stores combined.”

None of this has an equivalent in Canada. Though medical marijuana was legalized by the Chretien administration in 2001, implementation has been extraordinarily cautious, conservative, and suspicious. For American liberals who continue to fret over the White House’s supposedly ongoing “crackdown” of state dispensaries (mostly overrated; one point Regan and her subjects emphasize repeatedly is that Attorney General Eric Holder’s 2009 decree that federal law enforcement should not target individuals or businesses “complying with state laws on medical marijuana” did as much to trigger the pot boom as the initial state laws themselves), it’s quite remarkable how the continent’s less advanced commercial medicinal pot industry sits in the country whose federal government is nominally in favor of it.

In marked contrast to the anything-goes capitalism of the American states, Canadians desiring medicinal-use pot must order their bud from the federal government itself — who grow a special crop for just this purpose on a state-owned farm in Saskatoon — or request a couple Ottawa-issued seeds to grow a few small plants of their own. But only for personal use! The feds will “not licence organizations such as compassion clubs or dispensaries,” warns the stern and defensive Health Canada website.

Now, I’m not naive enough to pretend that this aggressively paternalistic government stranglehold on medical pot represents Canadians’ only form of access to the drug. Casual, recreational marijuana use is exceedingly common in urban centers all over the nation, while covert rural greenhouses and suburban grow-ops remain equally lucrative for anyone brave enough to attempt.

In my own province of British Columbia, for instance, it’s been estimated that illegal cannabis is BC’s second-largest industry, and this proliferation is helped considerably by an increasingly indifferent police establishment that, to echo the words of President Obama, long ago concluded it has “bigger fish to fry.”

But at the same time, this combination of poorly-implemented federal acceptance of legal medicinal pot and ongoing federal prohibition for every other kind has created an awkward status quo that many argue actually perpetuates the worst aspects of both worlds. There is no federalism or free enterprise present in the Canadian approach, after all, merely an entrenched national monopoly on one side, and a vast underground economy of criminals and gangsters on the other.

But change seems to be on its way.

On Monday, the Harper government announced a rather dramatic plan to abandon the feds’ pot distribution racket altogether in favor of a far more American-style delegation of responsibility to free market vendors.

Beginning in 2014, said Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, the Canadian state “will no longer produce and distribute marijuana for medical purposes,” nor will Canadians retain the right to grow at home with government seeds. Instead, the country will enter a bold new era in which privately-run “companies which meet strict security requirements” provide cannabis to anyone with a prescription, giving customers access to world of free-market selection beyond the take-it-or-leave it offerings of the federal government.

It is an exceedingly liberal reform for a Conservative government to propose, and it says something about the persistant way the Canadian press and left-wing opposition stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the fundamentally moderate character of the Harper regime that most of the post-announcement attention has largely consisted of forest-for-the-trees outrage about the poor plight of home growers.

Though all the details have yet to be hammered out, it now seems clear that Canada is solidly on track to embrace a far more public culture of pot, where the drug is sold and advertised in an unapologetic and open manner, enriching a whole new generation of entrepreneurs in the process.

Likewise, if the Colorado and Washington examples are any indication, private pot’s newfound legal legitimacy will almost certainly lead to an increase in the drug’s usage (for both medically legitimate and dubious reasons) a hike in mainstream tolerance, a further weakening of law enforcement resolve, and then — the biggie — a renwed push for the outright legalization of marijuana altogether.

For a prime minister that has, until now, made the War on Drugs a key component of his “tough on crime agenda” — one of the few identifiably right-wing agendas he still pursues at all, in fact — it seems bizarre that Harper would ignore the clear American precedent for where a liberalized, free-market medical marijuana regime will lead.

For a government that does not seem poised to leave many other legacies, the PM better quickly make peace with this one — it may be among his most substantial.


  1. Dan

    I never knew Canada had a single government-run medicinal pot farm. The idea seems like a Soviet-era relic.

  2. @StoicRomance

    I think you're looking at this all wrong.

    Of course you're right about the moderate reality of the Harper administration. That's clear at this point. But he is still a moderate conservative, and that fact is confirmed by this move (as well as how shrewd he is).

    The writing is on the wall. California and New York will follow Colorado and Washington into legalization and federal law will follow (assuming, and we should, Democratic voting patterns continuing past 2016 federally). With the US leading the way, pot legalization will come quickly to North America, with Latin America quickly following when the war on drugs retools to meet American priorities.

    So here is Steven Harper, probably finished the lion's share of his time in the PM chair, allowing the institution of the same first step as states down south took – prescriptions fillable at dispensaries.

    The world didn't end there, and it won't end here because of it.

    Suddenly, when the US enters into a stage of near-total legalization on the way to full legalization, Canada is a hop, skip, and jump away from following suit. It's a shrewd acknowledgement of things to come, and an assurance of that sweet, sweet tax revenue to follow legalization.

    You call it an "exceedingly liberal reform". Huh. I call it privatizing an inefficient government function that has not – until now – responded to the will of market forces.

    Hell, I'm ready to call this the most conservative move he's made to date. All of the sudden a major part of his legacy will be facilitating the speedy implementation of an industry that – by your own metrics on British Columbia – could become a national industrial power.

    It'll make people rich, create a new cash crop domestically, allow one of Canada's most famous exports to become legal, allow the exportation and cultivation of domestic talent in this sector, and pump billions into federal and provincial treasuries.

    All because he made a sober decision about what everybody knows – pot prohibition is a relic fueled by bad science and pre-integration racism. Pretty smart.

    (Not to mention, he's pulling the wind out of one of the federal Liberals' most popular sails – pot decriminalization as a matter of platform. A good thing to do when your base is aging and dying, your numbers with the youth are through the floor, and you have a hot, mustachioed Trudeau out for blood).

  3. supersparkplug

    Heh… Harper's legacy is already MUCH worse than "The guy who made it easier to buy pot." He's a disgusting PM…

  4. ThePsudo

    Thanks for that thoughtful and well-argued opinion.

  5. Ryan

    JJ is looking at this the wrong way. The new Canadian model would mimic the New Jersey model, which has proven to be too onerous for most private entities seeking a license to be a private grower. I would guess the government plans to set very onerous regulatory requirements on top of any local or provincial regulations just like we are seeing in New Jersey. If anything, this might make medical marijuana harder to get.

  6. Sisi

    This is an interesting way of looking at the Health Canada reforms. I worked in a compassion club in BC last year. It might seem like a liberal reform, but largely this is just about cracking down on people growing in their own home. No longer will people be allowed to do so, and compassion clubs already running legitimately like the Dispensary in Vancouver, or the Cannabis Buyer's Club in Victoria will have trouble sourcing their supply. (The Dispensary I believe was in on talks to change the program so they may become a licensed distributor, but as far as I knew there was only going to be a mail out program.

    The only reason that compassion clubs and medical marijuana dispensaries are allowed to exist is because they can't be prosecuted because the courts decided that Canadians using medical marijuana have the right to access to marijuana that is safe and of reasonable quality (the shwag produced by the Canadian government was not up to snuff and it's poor quality is why there are unlicensed dispensaries).

    Having had a look into the industry, this will clean things up yes, but what would clean things up best is actually legalizing marijuana and keeping the program health canada has arranged just now as a program for only medical patients — to have their prescription marijuana provided to them at no charge (just like morphine and oxycotin are!). Let compassion clubs and marijuana stores advertise and sell to the general public, but medical patients suffering from cancer, fibromyalgia and a host of other medical conditions shouldn't have to pay 6-12$ a gram for respite from their pain, symptoms or whatever they use it for.

    The biggest problem that I and others have with this new program is that people aren't allowed to grow for themselves. Medical marijuana is not covered in any way by medical in Canada. The only person I ever saw who had anyone else paying the costs of his medical marijuana was a man who had workers comp paying his bill, because his work gave him cancer. Marijuana is expensive, even at 5$ a gram (which is still enough to turn a profit) it could be unaffordable for people who are on a fixed income as many people on the program are (being critically ill or injured, fancy that), have a higher tolerance or simply require more to fix their problem. Someone smoking for respite from nausea will need less than someone smoking to alleviate joint pain.

    Growing marijuana is actually beneficial for people's mental state, horticultural therapy is a thing. And there's nothing more satisfying than growing your own marijuana. But also the people who are able, have invested, in many cases, a lot of money into their grow rooms. It is expensive to do it properly and safely, electrical often has to be upgraded and there are various forms of permanency to a grow room that people may or may not have put in the money for.

    And still other people unable to spend the money for grow rooms inside their homes, chose to grow outside either in green houses or just in the boonies.

    People grow their own often because they want to make butter out of it for baking, or tincture or even skin cream, all of which can be effective for people and requires more marijuana than simply to smoke it, this can become costly… and there is no say about whether or not the contractors to grow will be providing this. Unlikely.

    But this is all criticisms of a deeply broken system. The medical marijuana system is a joke, because of prohibition. There is no incentive for people to work within the system properly and every incentive not to. It's a shitty solution to a problem we created to deal with a people that don't really need to be kept down.

    If Harper is afraid of this being his legacy, he should be, but only because it's a stupid system that COULD breed the sort of things that JJ is talking about, aggressive marketing, special clinics, etcetera. Corporate privatization could be Harper's legacy. But a better one would be actually fixing the problems with the program that were identified by the supreme court of Ontiario, or just legalizing marijuana and solving a giant stupid problem that this country has had for almost a hundred years.

    The special clinics are sort of here already in a way. Because doctors are the gatekeepers to this program, there are few and far between that will sign papers for people that don't have a family doctor or don't look upstanding.

    This is actually what was deemed unconstitutional about the medical marijuana system in the Mernagh vs. Ontario case a while back, but what did they fix? The horrible problem of people growing. And still doctors are the ones who have the say in whether or not you get to take morphine or marijuana. SSRIs that you don't want for your depression or weed. Pain medications that will destroy your organs or dope. And at the very least, almost all doctors want patients to try medications that have fucked up side effects BEFORE trying marijuana, which has very few, often enjoyed and well known side effects.

    The way we approach this is stupid. That isn't even Harper's legacy, that's just a continuation of the idiocy dictated to us by a country so pathologically afraid of it that they throw my kind in jail at an alarming rate.

  7. Hentgen

    You do realize that Canadians pay for prescription drugs that relieve pain for home use, right? In fact, a lot of prescription drugs that Canadians need are out-of-pocket expenses, and much more expensive than marijuana. Making medical marijuana free would have to be considered part of a bigger prescription drug issue.

    I also think I could name a few things that are "more satisfying growing my own marijuana," frankly. I'm going to take a wild guess and say you're pro gun control. And I'm going to guess that the argument: "Sure, an automatic rifle could be used to kill a lot of people, but people who want them would mainly use them for competitive shooting and hunting deer" won't convince you to loosen up gun laws.

    Even if the changes in the legislation is effectively clamping down on private growers, why should I take your word that people who "require more marijuana than simply to smoke" aren't simply selling their excess supply? How does the government know these people aren't selling to minors? This is precisely the same logic that keeps the sale of alcohol in government hands in almost every province.

    While society ramps up efforts to reduce alcohol and tobacco usage, you're proposing to bring in a new vice into the mix. Nowhere in your long talk did you once mention the need to promote responsible usage and distribution, programs to educate people on the risks of marijuana usage, or ultimately lower consumption of marijuana in this country.

    The evidence that the War On Drugs is counterproductive is pretty overwhelming, but that doesn't mean that society, or the government acting on our behalf, should want to just allow people to use excessive amounts of marijuana, just the same as alcohol or tobacco.

  8. Tweeg

    Yah I don't think this will over shadow selling us out to China

  9. Jake_Ackers

    There is more crime due to drug trafficking than drug use. Simple.

    The only real worry with legalization of drug use is massive amounts of people becoming addicted. Production goes down. That was the case in China with opium back in the 1800s. However, with the massive amount of drug education and rehab, its unlikely to happen. Thus as a result still more drug crime due to drug trafficking than drug use.

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