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November 12, 2018

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Canada makes marijuana legal, and a national experiment begins

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Chris Donovan / The New York Times

Lacey Macmurchy, an employee at BBFs head shop, arranges glassware in a display, in Toronto, Oct. 12, 2018. Canada on Oct. 17 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.

MONTREAL — Canada on Wednesday became the first major world economy to legalize recreational marijuana, 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.

Across the country, as government pot retailers opened from Newfoundland to British Columbia, jubilant Canadians waited for hours in line to buy the first state-approved joints. For many, it was a seminal moment, akin to the ending of Prohibition in the United States in the 1930s.

“I have never felt so proud to be Canadian,” said Marco Beaulieu, 29, a janitor, as he waited with friends outside a government cannabis retailer in the east end of Montreal. “Canada is once again a progressive global leader.”

Canada is the second country in the world, after Uruguay, to legalize marijuana. Canadians broadly support marijuana legalization, but amid the euphoria, there was also caution.

“Legalization of cannabis is the largest public policy shift this country has experienced in the past five decades,” said Mike FarnworthBritish Columbia’s minister of public safety. “I don’t think that when the federal government decided to legalize marijuana it thought through all of the implications.

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.

Marijuana for medical purposes has been legal in Canada since 2001. 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. The federal government has left the country’s 13 provinces and territories to set their own rules, creating a patchwork of regulations.

On Wednesday morning, the government announced that it would introduce legislation to make it easier for Canadians who had been convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana to obtain a pardon.

The legalization of cannabis has led to a so-called “green rush,” with licensed cannabis growers pressing to get a foothold in what is expected to be a $5 billion industry by 2020, buttressed by the expected arrival of thousands of pot tourists from the United States.