A customer walks into a downtown marijuana dispensary to browse the hash menu for the perfect after-lunch pick-up. Another flicks through images in an online store, planning to purchase a selection as a hostess gift.
Like it or not, this will be the reality across Canada after the proposed Cannabis Act (or Bill C-45) comes into force this summer.
Depending on which province or territory you live in, if you are of legal age to purchase marijuana, you will soon be able to drop into a licensed store or order it online from the comfort of your own home.
But the promised legalization date of July, 1, 2018, is approaching fast. Many aspects of marijuana regulation will not be finalized by then.
We are both researchers from the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the University of Calgary. Together with colleagues in the Health Technology Assessment Unit, we have produced a series of five evidence-based reports to help inform and support policy development in this area by the government of Alberta.
We suggest that marijuana regulation in Canada might be a 10-year project. There are some key issues that urgently need to be decided before legalization this year — such as online sales and occupational health and safety. Others — such as regulating cannabis edibles — might need to be shelved for a later date.
Concentric policy circles
In 2016, a Canadian task force was appointed to make recommendations on a new framework to support the production and sales of recreational marijuana.
Bill C-45 still needs final approval from the Senate. But the provinces and territories have begun the preparation for this eventual reality.
The policy environment is like three concentric circles, with each level of higher government setting the boundaries of the lower government’s regulations.
Nationally, the focus has primarily been on youth, enforcement (training officers in time for legalization) and taxation (such as finalizing tax disbursement details between all parties).
Within the provinces and territories, the conversation has been focused on minimum age, impairment and where to sell and by whom. These policy issues fall squarely under the provincial and territorial domains and it makes most sense for them to build upon existing tobacco and alcohol infrastructure, meaning there will be differences between jurisdictions.
These variations could result in confusion (different age minimums) or provide unwanted advantages (lower taxation levels could boost sales in a particular province).
Cities will be left to deal with bylaw issues — such as public consumption and policing. Here again, there will be a number of variations in policy and resources within municipal jurisdictions.
Weed delivered to your home
A major issue facing each province and territory is how and where marijuana will be sold.
Most producers are likely to want to provide online “delivery to your door” services. Many already do so for medical marijuana and are poised to expand their presence after legalization.
Provinces will need to decide if they will allow online sales and how they expect retailers to enforce minimum age requirements. Purchasing online with home delivery creates additional issues that still need to be worked out. It is, after all, pretty easy to lie about your age to a computer screen.
Smoking safely at work
Employers will have an interesting challenge. What are acceptable levels of impairment and how will we test and enforce them?
For safety-sensitive occupations, many companies already have random work-site testing with a zero tolerance policy for alcohol and other impairing substances. For other occupations, the culture around marijuana is defined by its illegal status. Most people choose not to step outside for their smoke break and light up a joint — because it’s illegal, not because they wouldn’t enjoy it.
In the context of legalized marijuana, smoking a joint with your coffee will be acceptable. But how will that be balanced with the expectation to work without impairment? This part still needs to be figured out.
Freedom and privacy will be at the forefront of this debate. How employers will balance safety, privacy and their “duty to accommodate” employees who use medical marijuana is still not known.
At minimum, employers may need to revisit workplace policies in order to balance the needs of employees who require the use of marijuana and the safety of their workplaces.
Our hunch is that occupational health and safety issues will eventually be settled through the courts rather than through development of good sound policy.
Buying marijuana edibles
Marijuana edibles come in all forms, from chocolate bars to gummy bears. These familiar-looking, colorful items are already a big hit in Colorado where marijuana was legalized in 2014.
Marijuana-infused edibles will likely continue the myth of cannabis as a natural alternative with no harms. They may also increase the likelihood that children will accidentally consume these products. We need to learn more.
What regulations or approaches limit accidental ingestion?
How will the introduction of edibles influence the number of users and their use patterns?
How will edibles affect impairment levels differently than smoked product?
These are just a few of the issues that we know very little about.
Edibles are an easy part of the market to carve off and deal with later.
The issues surrounding their inclusion are complicated and, wisely, several of the provinces have already stated that they will not allow edibles in the July 2018 regulations.
A 10-year project
Canada is only the second country in the world to legalize marijuana (or the 10th jurisdiction if we count all the states in the U.S.). We will have to learn most of the lessons ourselves. Policy shortcomings or failings are inevitable.
We should expect to make continual adjustments, modifications and regulations over the next 10 years as we try to achieve the desired goals of limiting the black market, decreasing the justice system drain and protecting youth.