By Phillip Smith
I’m taking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberals at their word that they are actually going to get around to legalizing marijuana, so my concern is not that they do it, but how they do it.
I can’t claim to be familiar with all the intricacies surrounding how legalization is going to work up there, but I can say that the way it is developing in some of the US states where it is now legal raises some caution flags. Don’t get me wrong—I support legalization—but I am just a little bit creeped out by the increasing commodification and commercialization of the weed.
Money has always been a factor in the marijuana business, of course, but in those golden days of yore, when people grew and smoked weed because they loved the plant and what it did to them (not to mention sticking it to the man and being rebelliously cool), making money off it was a sort of afterthought. And for those who risked growing commercially, sure, they wanted to make some money, but at least they loved their product.
Now, the scene is increasingly inhabited by men and women in business attire whose intentions are purely driven by the possibility of profit. They aren’t marijuana people; they’re business people. These days, it seems like half the news alerts I get about marijuana are not about busts or moves to legalize it, but about stock offerings, business opportunities, and industry growth profiles.
I suppose I shouldn’t begrudge them too much. I recall being in Los Angeles a dozen years ago and picking up a locally-distributed “journal of medical marijuana.” A perusal of a few pages made it clear that the “journal” was little more than a means of advertising California’s wide-open medical marijuana dispensaries, consisting almost entirely of tawdry ads featuring sexy women in scanty nurse’s outfits and come-on promotional offers (“Free eighth with first purchase!”).
That was when I realized that marijuana prohibition in the US was doomed. The tacky power of American capitalism would not be denied. There was too much money to be made to put that genie back in the bottle. And that is proving to be the case, not just with a now legal, profit-driven marijuana industry that organizes and lobbies like any other special interest, but also from the point of view of state governments. It becomes increasingly difficult to “just say no” to an industry that will painlessly fill tax coffers with hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
It’s the American way. But does it have to be the Canadian way? I hope Canada will proceed toward legalization based on social justice and human rights concerns, not the bottom line, legalization informed more by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms than the CSE. Do Canadians really aspire to have a Tim Horton’s of weed?
Canada could restrict commercialization in any number of ways. It could create local ownership provisions. It could ban chains. It could restrict advertising. It could create government-owned retail outlets. I hope the Liberals will explore some of these options, but I understand that there will be a contrary impulse to seek to maximize tax revenues.
Canada could also structure legalization to favor small, mom-and-pop grow operations. Why give effective monopolies to large corporations? Also, there is something of a search for restorative justice here: I don’t want to see the pioneers of Canadian marijuana cultivation frozen out after all the work they’ve done over the years. Yeah, they broke the laws, but those were some laws that deserved to be scorned, and the country’s hard-core pot growers need to be recognized for their contributions, not squeezed out.
I live in California, where pot is effectively legal under the state’s medical marijuana laws. In fact, it seems a lot less restrictive here than in the pot-legal states, with their high-tech “seed to sale” tracking systems and their byzantine regulatory bureaucracies. And we are probably going to just legalize it completely this fall through the initiative process.
But a funny thing happened on the way to legalization: All those people who fought so hard for all these years to achieve have been frozen out. The Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA) was crafted by attorneys working with tech billionaire Sean Parker, of Napster and Facebook fame, with no input from the state’s large and varied cannabis community, and doesn’t even seem interested in garnering its support. Instead, it relies on recommendations from a blue-ribbon commission empaneled by Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.
The cannabis community here will likely vote for it like the country will vote for Hillary Clinton, not because it’s what we want, but because it’s better than the alternative.
I hope Canada does better. And I hope it listens to its own cannabis constituency. Marc Emery may be obnoxious, but when it comes to marijuana policy, he got it right.
I haven’t addressed public health concerns because I just don’t see marijuana as that big a public health threat. I’ll leave that to the public health professionals; it’s their job to worry about that stuff.
Phillip Smith is the author of the Drug War Chronicle since 2000, and is currently the editor of the AlterNet Drug Reporter.