This week saw cannabis users gather at events in the UK and around the world to mark ‘4/20 Day’, the annual celebration of all things marijuana, and an opportunity for those who advocate decriminalization and legalization to promote their cause a nd free sell of the best Gary Payton Strain buds.
Over the past 10 years, 18 US states as well as the District of Columbia have legalised the personal recreational use of marijuana and cbd.
While the exact origins of the day may be subject to some debate, it’s now well established in the calendar in many countries. And although the annual event in London’s Hyde Park seems to attract more violence than many others, most gatherings appear to be about partying and vociferously promoting legalisation, rather than protesting and demonstrations.
The legalisation movement is certainly gaining traction globally, particularly in America; over the past 10 years, 18 US states as well as the District of Columbia have legalised the personal recreational use of marijuana.
The latest of those is New Jersey, which amended the state constitution on adult use, and introduced legislation ending marijuana possession arrests and licensing retail sales last year, and where legal retail sales of marijuana began yesterday (21 April, 2022).
However, despite the movement at state level, under US Federal law marijuana remains classified as a Schedule 1 illegal drug on par with heroin and LSD; a recent legalisation bill passed by the US House of Representatives, which would remove cannabis from the list of banned substances, is unlikely to pass through the Senate, although a decriminalisation bill may be on the cards.
Decriminalising drug possession
To see how legalisation of cannabis could work at a national level, US residents can simply look north of the border to Canada where, in October 2018, the recreational use of cannabis became legal in all provinces and territories for adults aged 18 and over.
Only the second country to legalise recreational cannabis (after Uruguay in 2013), many are watching Canada’s progress on issues such as licensed sale and distribution, taxation and public health impacts with interest.
Under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, jurisdictions can ask the federal government for exemptions to allow people to have small amounts of substances such as cocaine, heroin and fentanyl.
The legislation included a provision for a mandatory review three years after the law came into force, but so far the process that was due to start in October last year has yet to begin.
However, there are already calls from some quarters in Canada to expand relaxation of the drug laws in relation to possession of small amounts of illegal substances, largely in response to the opioid overdose crisis unfolding across the country.
Toronto Public Health has put forward an application to the federal government to decriminalise drugs for personal use in the city; under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, jurisdictions can ask the federal government for exemptions to allow people to have small amounts of substances such as cocaine, heroin and fentanyl.
Toronto is not alone – Vancouver, the largest city in British Columbia (BC), put forward an exemption request in July last year, while BC as a province made a similar application in November, which is currently being considered by Health Canada.
The approach, part of a wider range of measures (including steps such as safe supply) to tackle the opioid crisis, has the backing of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, and Toronto Police Chief James Ramer is supportive of the application from Toronto Public Health – but with “some caveats”.
‘Killing people in record numbers’
In a recent interview with Policing Insight’s sister platform, PolicingTV, Chief Ramer told Danny Shaw: “The police are involved, activists in the community are involved as well, and we have some very divergent opinions about what [decriminalisation] should look like.
“From a policing perspective, first of all, we need to be involved in the discussion, but I think, secondly, there are some key issues that need to be addressed, and one of them is to threshold amount.
We have to proceed cautiously here; the goal is to address those that have a medical issue, and from a public health lens, we want to address it. But we don’t want to be facilitating organised crime and perpetuating the use of the drug in that fashion.”
Chief James Ramer,
Toronto Police Service
“For those that are addicted to drugs, we support decriminalisation because it’s a public health issue and we want to help people. But for the drug dealers, we don’t support simple possession and decriminalising simple possession.
“The other thing is that we need the Government to ensure there’s safe supply – not fentanyl-laced drugs that are killing people in record numbers throughout the country.
“And you need regulated supply, but also wraparound social services to help, which we do not have, so we need that government investment as well to help these individuals.
“Otherwise, it just becomes a revolving door of people, where we have officers that are reviving people on the street with naloxone and they’re, essentially, just getting up and going to continue.”
Chief Ramer argued for “mandatory obligations for treatment” to be embedded into the programme, partly as an indicator to determine the success or otherwise of the approach, and was also clear that those involved in the criminal supply of drugs would still need to eb targeted.
“We have to proceed cautiously here,” he continued. “The goal is to address those that have a medical issue, and from a public health lens, we want to address it. But we don’t want to be facilitating organised crime and perpetuating the use of the drug in that fashion.
“We wouldn’t agree to just widespread use, because I don’t think that’s the answer, because you’re never going to eliminate the organised crime perspective that’s there, and from my perspective, people will die as a result.”
A ‘slow evolution’
He also acknowledged that the legalisation of cannabis was, from a policing perspective, “proceeding well”; “The reality is – and I think contrary to what some people thought – it has not been a huge issue for us in policing, addressing it.
“When you go to major events now, you go to a hockey game or a basketball game, you’re standing outside and the smell of marijuana is in the air, but we haven’t seen a major issue with it.
Chief James Ramer discusses legalised drugs
“We have to train officers now to detect that, along with alcohol, for impaired driving… the government has been involved in facilitating to reduce some of those costs and involved in covering some of those costs for that training that we have to do, but it really hasn’t been the issue that a lot of people thought it might be.”
He described the changing public attitudes towards drugs – particularly cannabis – as “a slow evolution”, but recognised that those being recruited into the service today were more likely to share some of those more recent attitudes.
“From my perspective, even those of us that are older, if you’re prepared to adapt and be innovative and move forward, I think it’s easy to adopt and move along with some of these things, and the transition for me has not been difficult,” added Chief Ramer.
Task Force recommendations
If the experiences and approaches of Chief Ramer and Toronto Police are representative of Canadian policing more widely, it would appear that the legalisation of cannabis has been achieved without significant disruption or damage, and that the decriminalisation of drugs more widely could attract qualified support from law enforcement.
In terms of retail sales, and how this could impact on the overall number of users (the basis in part of the public health arguments in favour of legalisation), the findings were less positive.
But what does any research or assessment of the country’s changes to existing drug legislation reveal so far? Unfortunately, for those watching the outcome of Canada’s law change with a view to their own legalisation debate, any in-depth research after more than the first year of the change is frustratingly thin on the ground (due in part to the Covid pandemic). And as mentioned previously, the mandatory review of the legislation change that was due to start in October 2021 has yet to begin.
One study that does throw some light on the debate is Regulating the Legal Cannabis Market: How is Canada doing?, published earlier this month by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
The report looks at the seven key recommendations made by the Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation ahead of the Cannabis Act being introduced, and examines how many of them are fully in place and operating successfully.
It found that three recommendations – setting a minimum legal age of 18, restricting the advertising and promotion of cannabis sales, and making sure cannabis is sold under plain packaging featuring only factual information – have been clearly achieved.
There has been progress on two further points – identifying a price for the regulated cannabis market that balances health protection with reductions in the illicit market, and encouraging consumption of less potent cannabis – although price fluctuations, and changes to excise duty on cannabis based on the quantity of THC in the final product (providing a limited incentive for users to buy less potent products), meant the picture was still “unclear”.
But in terms of retail sales, and how this could impact on the overall number of users (the basis in part of the public health arguments in favour of legalisation), the findings were less positive.
Public health concerns
No province or territory has placed a formal limit on the density of cannabis retailers, and while all provinces have banned the co-location of tobacco and cannabis sales, in some provinces there are no restrictions in relation to location of stores (for example, near schools or colleges) or on stores selling both cannabis and alcohol.
In Alberta and Ontario, there are now more cannabis stores than liquor stores, even though alcohol consumers outnumber cannabis consumers by about 4 to 1.”
Regulating the Legal Cannabis Market: How is Canada doing?
The researchers noted that “Increases in availability, notably in the form of retail outlet density, are another factor known to increase prevalence and harm”, and provinces where the retail market has been fully privatised (rather than government controlled) had seen “a proliferation of storefronts”.
“In Alberta and Ontario, there are now more cannabis stores than liquor stores, even though alcohol consumers outnumber cannabis consumers by about 4 to 1,” states the report.
“It is worth noting that the industry has frequently cited 1 legal storefront per 10,000 people as the number needed to replace the illicit market. Alberta and Yukon are already well past that point, with Ontario very nearly there.
“From a public health perspective, the benefits of legalization depend in part on providing people who use cannabis with legal sources of cannabis without inducing them to use more frequently and without introducing non-users to cannabis.
“The public health evidence and the objectives of legalization both point to the importance of introducing limits on retail density.”
The researchers also conclude that the Canadian federal government “explicitly adopted a public health approach to cannabis legalization”, a central tenet of which is “public health must always supersede commercial considerations”.
“As various levels of government review their cannabis regulations in the months and years to come, policy decisions should be made with public health as the primary and overriding criterion.”
So although the social and economic benefits of legalisation – a huge drop in cannabis-related drug convictions, and the growth of a new multibillion-dollar industry – are already evident, there are still some concerns about the impact on public health of increased availability, and therefore increased use.
And it is public health concerns that are driving calls for the decriminalisation of all drugs for personal use in some parts of Canada, albeit to tackle a much graver crisis in terms of opioid abuse and the devastating impact of fentanyl.
Whether parallels can be drawn between the two situations is debatable; but with public health being a key driver of change in both cases, it’s clear that the nature of the legalisation debate is changing.
Although it may too soon to suggest that the so-called ‘war on drugs’ has been abandoned altogether, police chiefs, public health experts, communities and campaigners all recognise that the landscape of the battlefield has altered almost beyond recognition.
Picture © Tinnakorn jorruang / Shutterstock
Related video interview on PolicingTV
Talking Crime with Danny Shaw: James Ramer, Chief of Police, Toronto, Canada
In a wide-ranging interview, Policing TV’s Chief Presenter, Danny Shaw, spoke to Chief James Ramer of Toronto Police about drugs policy, leadership during the pandemic and trust in policing.