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Canada Makes Marijuana Legal, and a National Experiment Begins

MONTREAL — Canada on Wednesday became the first major world economy to legalize recreational marijuana use, beginning a national experiment that will alter the country’s social, cultural and economic fabric, and present the nation with its biggest public policy challenge in decades.

Newfoundlanders became the first Canadians to be able to smoke pot legally, when retailers there opened in the country’s easternmost province at midnight.

Across the rest of the country, government-run stores were preparing to greet consumers, who will be able to choose among pre-rolled joints, fresh or dried marijuana flowers and cannabis oil — all of which are permitted under the new federal law.

And pot enthusiasts from Montreal to Winnipeg to Calgary were getting their bongs ready for “End of Prohibition” house parties.

The government is set to announce on Wednesday that it will make it easier for Canadians who were convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana to obtain a pardon, said a government official familiar with the plan who confirmed it but was not authorized to speak publicly about it.

“The fact that we are moving away from a Prohibition model is a victory for human rights and social justice, an economic windfall for the Canadian economy and a sign of social progress,” said Adam Greenblatt, a director at Canopy Growth, a producer that has been valued at more than $ 10 billion dollars.

Others were more cautious.

“Legalization of cannabis is the largest public policy shift this country has experienced in the past five decades,” said Mike Farnworth, British Columbia’s minister of public safety.

“It’s an octopus with many tentacles,” he added, “and there are many unknowns. I don’t think that when the federal government decided to legalize marijuana, it thought through all of the implications.

In a stinging editorial published on Monday, the Canadian Medical Association Journal called the government’s legalization plan an “uncontrolled experiment in which the profits of cannabis producers and tax revenues are squarely pitched against the health of Canadians.”

It called on the government to promise to change the law if it leads to increased marijuana use.

But the so-called “green rush” is already on, as licensed cannabis growers have been rushing for months to get a foothold in what is expected to be a $ 5 billion industry ($ 6.5 billion Canadian dollars) by 2020, buttressed by the expected arrival of thousands of pot tourists from across the border in the United States.

When Justin Trudeau ran for prime minister three years ago, legalizing recreational marijuana was one of his campaign promises. Canadians broadly support cannabis legalization, reflecting a progressive liberal-minded country where use of the previously illegal drug has been commonplace.

Canada is only the second country in the world, after Uruguay, to legalize it.

According to Statistics Canada, 4.9 million Canadians used cannabis last year and consumed more than 20 grams of marijuana per person, spending a total of $ 5.6 billion.

Bernard Le Foll, a specialist in addiction at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, a leading teaching hospital and research organization, said that although the center supported legalization, he was concerned that the public dissemination of information about risks had been insufficient.

“Cannabis is not a benign substance,” he said. “There is a clear risk of addiction and it can produce significant mental health issues if used by the wrong kind of people.”

He added, “It took decades for the public to understand the risks of cigarettes, and the legalization of cannabis has taken place only over a few years.”

The federal government has left the country’s 13 provinces and territories to carry out the new legislation and to set their own rules, creating a patchwork of regulations. Among many open questions are how the police will test drivers who may be high and how employers deal with employees who smoke before coming to work.

Under Canada’s new federal cannabis act, adults will be allowed to possess, carry and share with other adults up to 30 grams of dried cannabis, enough to roll roughly 60 regular-size joints. They will also be permitted a maximum of four homegrown marijuana plants per household.

Marijuana for medical purposes has been legal in Canada since 2001, and about 330,000 Canadians, including cancer patients, are registered to receive it from licensed producers.

Cannabis edibles — like pot-infused jelly beans, peanut butter and coffee — won’t be legal for another year.

On Tuesday, on a commercial street in the east end of Montreal, a new government marijuana retailer, with the appearance of a modern pharmacy, was bracing for crowds. The sterility of the store design seemed calculated to make pot unglamorous, almost like buying cough syrup.

After being screened by unarmed security guards near the entrance to ensure that they meet Quebec’s current legal age of 18 for cannabis consumption (19 in most other provinces), consumers will be able to scroll nearby flat computer screens detailing 180 products, such as Pink Kush, a dried cannabis flower that retails at about $ 95, or $ 122.90 Canadian dollars, for 15 grams.

To ensure that prices remain competitive with the black market, one gram of cannabis can be purchased for as low as about $ 4, or $ 5.25 Canadian dollars.

Inside the store, wooden shelves were stacked with cannabis products in boxes and containers, divided into three sections: Indica, Sativa and Hybrid.

Large big bold signs explained that Sativa could create the impression of being “uplifted and mentally stimulated,” while Indica “could create the impression of a relaxed and sleep-induced state.”

On opening day, attendants in green aprons will be explaining various weed aromas — lemon, skunk and diesel — as well as the intensity of THC in each product, which causes the psychotropic effects associated with cannabis.

As with cigarettes, the cannabis is clearly marked with health warnings like “One in eleven people who use cannabis will become addicted.”

The government’s stated rationale for legalizing cannabis is to tame an illegal trade estimated at $ 6.2 billion. But from Toronto to Winnipeg to Vancouver, hundreds of illegal shops have indicated they have no intention of shutting down, and the black market supply chain remains deeply entrenched.

Chief Constable Adam Palmer of the Vancouver Police Department, who is also the president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, warned this week that defusing the black market would take years. At a time of limited resources, he said, policing marijuana would not suddenly become law enforcement’s primary concern.

“Fentanyl kills 11 Canadians a day,” he said, referring to the powerful synthetic opioid that is a public health scourge in some cities like Vancouver. “Marijuana does not.”

He added, “I don’t expect a big crackdown on day one.”

Among the biggest concerns among law enforcement and public safety officials is the risk that more people will drive while high.

Under the new law, those who drive stoned will face a fine of at least $ 1,000 Canadian dollars and up to five years in prison for cases that do not result in injury or death. Constable Palmer stressed that roadside sobriety tests would remain rigorous and that the number of officers trained to give such tests would increase from 13,000 to 20,000 over the next few years.

Police forces nationwide are divided over the reliability of roadside saliva tests for THC.

Some health officials warned that legalization threatened to create public health problems, if public education about risks did not intensify.

Jean-Sébastien Fallu, associate professor of applied psychology and a specialist in addiction at Université de Montréal, said he feared the new legalization so restricted what could be consumed and where that it could push users even further underground.

He also warned that the commercialization of cannabis risked “banalizing” the risks of consumption and creating peer pressure among vulnerable teenagers.

“We don’t want young people to feel stigmatized, for example, if they don’t use cannabis, and, as we have seen with alcohol, there can be a lot of social pressure,” Mr. Fallu said.

Once the profit motive becomes the main imperative,” he added, “and big business lobbying becomes entrenched, we are worried that public health and safety will be sacrificed.”

Many who had pushed for the new law anticipated the day as a moment of jubilation. But in Vancouver, protesters who say legalization hasn’t gone far enough were planning to demonstrate Wednesday in front of Parliament in Victoria and to give away black-market joints.

Others were planning to smoke defiantly at the dozens of illegal marijuana dispensaries across the city.

“People don’t want to buy government-approved joints,” said Jodie Emery, a leading cannabis activist in Vancouver. “Legalization is little more than the whitewashing of cannabis culture.”

Follow Dan Bilefsky on Twitter: @DanBilefsky

Ian Austen contributed reporting from Ottawa.

Source: NYT > World

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