"You'll never hear me say that marijuana is a medicine." - Rona Ambrose, Minister of Health
With those words, Rona Ambrose arguably provided the catalyst for marijuana's de facto full-scale legalization in British Columbia. Her recent rants (along with some ridiculous public service announcements and attack ads) could also conceivably cost her party the election, as voters increasingly see legalization as a key election issue in a tight race where every vote will count.
She was responding in outrage, of course, to the unanimous Supreme Court decision that legalized cannabis-based edibles, extracts and concentrates for medical use. The court's decision was good news all around: patients were finally granted legal alternatives to smoking or vaporizing marijuana, and parents would no longer face prosecution for preparing medicine for their children. The ruling made perfect sense - but Ms. Ambrose, as Stephen Harper's mouthpiece, went ballistic.
The Baker and the Blockhead
The decision, and the over-the-top reaction from the minister responsible for administering Canada's medical marijuana program, were big news across the country. Also, they highlighted several major problems:
- A soft-spoken baker from Victoria, British Columbia, had to spend over $150,000 and six years of his life defending himself for making cookies for sick people.
- The minister responsible for the nation's medical marijuana program (which will grow to encompass over 400,000 Canadians by Health Canada's own estimates), is a complete blockhead.
People in British Columbia paid particular attention to these developments. Marijuana is the province's second largest industry; half the country's medical marijuana licensees live there; and just about everybody wants to see it taxed and regulated. When Ms. Ambrose expressed more outrage a few weeks later - this time over Vancouver City Council's decision to regulate cannabis dispensaries - local authorities weren't impressed:
Marijuana storefronts form part of Justin Trudeau’s plan to make smoking marijuana a normal, everyday activity and make it available in stores across Canada... Storefronts selling marijuana are illegal and under this Conservative Government will remain illegal. We expect the police to enforce the law. - Rona Ambrose, Minister of Health
The notion of raiding 100+ marijuana retail stores that serve thousands of patients, many of them seriously ill, was so ridiculous that local authorities responded with a collective "WTF?!" Of course, they were a bit more diplomatic - the province's chief medical officer said he would "beg to differ"; the police said they'll probably be busy that day with other priorities, like violent crime; one city councillor told the minister to "wake up"; a former mayor reminded Ottawa they had "lost control of this file"; and, when asked if he would shutter the dispensaries, the mayor simply said "no."
Response to Prohibition
As one civic politician pointed out, the rapid rise in dispensaries was a direct response to the Harper government's "prohibitionist approach." Dispensaries grew in number exponentially when Ms. Ambrose's department told 47,000 patients that they could no longer produce their own cannabis or obtain it from licensed growers. Instead, they were to order it by mail (at a higher price) from a few large corporations.
Smaller producers were pushed aside, left hanging with expensive, empty facilities as Health Canada continuously changed the rules; larger corporations, backed by investors with deep pockets, overreached; legal producers tried to find niche markets, such as pill-popping soccer moms (!); a court injunction was issued, keeping the old regulations in force; police were frustrated; patients struggled; confusion reigned.
To make matters infinitely worse, Health Canada sent out all 47,000 patients and growers notifications of the new regulations by mail, using Health Canada's medical marijuana program as the return address. Hundreds of home invasions and security breaches followed, forcing over 300 people to change residences. A class action suit is currently underway.
The social, legal and political chaos that has resulted from what one judge described as Health Canada's "tight, almost miserly, control over the distribution of medicinal marihuana" created such a morass that market forces took over and the cannabis dispensaries took off.
Coinciding with new municipal regulations, the dispensaries themselves are banding together with their own trade associations [1,2,3]. The Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries (CAMCD) has already released a set of common-sense certification standards, and reading through them is like a breath of fresh air compared to the onerous regulations imposed by Health Canada that have caused this mess. It's no wonder physicians are as likely to refer someone to a dispensary as to the official Health Canada program.
With the election looming, the Harper government will inevitably increase its prohibitionist rhetoric. Meanwhile, dispensaries will continue to multiply in number, especially in BC, as more Canadians request prescriptions from their doctors and people begin to appreciate the convenience of dispensaries. Police forces seem to be taking the changes in stride, overall (Nanaimo police have entered a "holding pattern" while the dust settles; and Winnipeg police even tried to reassure a concerned caller that dispensaries are legal.) And, though there will be a few holdouts (Duncan City Council has surprisingly instructed staff to deny business licenses to dispensaries) many municipalities are keen to explore the Vancouver model, or something similar - Kimberley City Council recently showed their mettle; Victoria's regulations are coming soon; White Rock is now considering a pilot project; Nanaimo is turning a blind eye.
Despite positive reports pouring in from south of the border (bountiful tax revenues, a decline in use among youth, even decreased highway and prescription drug fatalities) Ms. Ambrose insists that "legitimizing and normalizing the use and sale of marijuana can have only one effect: increasing marijuana use and addiction." However, the sky certainly hasn't fallen in Vancouver. With more dispensaries than Starbucks, and a groundbreaking set of municipal regulations, Vancouver has shown what can be accomplished - and, as one city councillor put it, "everybody is watching".
Recent events haven't gone unnoticed internationally. The Supreme Court decision caused global headlines, as did Vancouver's dispensary regulations. One Washington sheriff, following events in Canada, went out of his way to assure CBC listeners that when his state legalized marijuana, "from a crime standpoint, there was nothing to enforce anymore and the sky didn't fall." It was "business as usual, and no big deal."
While pressure builds for the entire province to follow in Washington, Oregon and Colorado's footsteps, the province's former soliciter general announced that it's totally doable without Ottawa's support. Meanwhile, a de facto legalization will continue to creep from one BC community to the next. Hopefully, Rona has a few more rants in store to speed things along.
Owen Smith, the Victoria man at the centre of the Supreme Court ruling, produced this video to express his thoughts on Rona's rants. Enjoy... It's genius.