The Legal Cannabis Experiment Begins: The Canada Letter

The Legal Cannabis Experiment Begins: The Canada Letter

It’s probably not a coincidence that the first day of legal recreational marijuana sales landed on a weekday. Canada’s big new social and legal step was met by midnight crowds at marijuana shops in St. John’s, a concert in Halifax (where security guards told partygoers to put out celebratory joints) and a countdown party in Toronto. But for most Canadians, today is another workday rather than a time for getting high and partying.

The Natural Vibe store in St. John’s, Newfoundland, on Wednesday after legal recreational marijuana went on sale.CreditChris Wattie/Reuters

Still, this is a moment when much of the world is watching Canada. I began this morning being interviewed by broadcasters in the United States and Britain. What some are calling Canada’s great experiment may, if it unfolds successfully, serve as a template for other countries. If Canada stumbles, legalization will become a cautionary tale.

This week, we began to explore the social, economic and legal consequences of the government’s plan, which we’ve compiled in this bonus issue of the Canada Letter.

Dan Bilefsky is leading our news coverage today from Montreal where, among other things, he’s visiting provincially owned pot shops. Dan, along with the Canada bureau chief Catherine Porter and me, will continue updating the story.


The growing area of SunPure Cannabis in Vancouver.CreditAlana Paterson for The New York Times

[Read: Canada Makes Marijuana Legal, and a National Experiment Begins]

While Canada is the first major industrial nation to take on this challenge, several states in the United States have already legalized marijuana, though it remains prohibited under federal law. Thomas Fuller, the San Francisco bureau chief for The Times, found that after 10 months of legalization in California, the black market still rules.

[Read: What Canada Can Learn from California on Marijuana Legalization]

Like many things in Canada, what legal marijuana actually entails will vary depending on where you live. Montrealers can now peruse the offerings at cannabis shops run by Quebec’s liquor board. But the only legal option for people in Ontario is online shopping.


Marijuana buds came out of a trimming machine at SunPure Cannabis.CreditAlana Paterson for The New York Times

That’s not the only thing that will differ, province to province. The list includes legal age, whether you can grow legal marijuana at home, and where you can actually smoke it. We’ve put together a guide to help you sort out the new rules.

[Read: Canada Is Legalizing Cannabis. Here’s What You Need to Know.]

The government has said that one of its goals for the heavily regulated system is to put the brakes on the growth in marijuana use by Canadians, and to keep it away from children. We are, by global standards, something of a land of potheads. Catherine made her way through the haze of the underground scene to get a sense of how cannabis culture will change with legalization.

Mixed in with celebration, there’s consternation among some previously illicit users.

“Some people are referring to this as Prohibition 2.0,” a sociologist who studies cannabis users told Catherine. “The regulation has brought an enhanced sense of scrutiny.”

[Read: Canadians Already Smoke a Lot of Pot. Now It’s About to Become Legal.]


Marijuana plants in the flowering room at Canopy Growth’s facility in Smiths Falls, Ontario.CreditDave Chan for The New York Times

Since Canada’s medical marijuana industry was greatly expanded in 2013, I’ve been writing about the people who hope to cash in on marijuana. Back then, major banks wouldn’t deal with many of their companies and several of them seemed perpetually on the brink of bankruptcy.

The transformation has been dizzying. The largest producers are now valued by investors in the billions. Executives who were once scraping by now drive around in Ferraris. Many of their employees, thanks to stock options, are now millionaires. And some of the communities where they are based, notably Smiths Falls, Ontario, are experiencing an economic revival.


An employee at Doja, a subsidiary of Canopy Growth, inspecting cloned marijuana plants last week in Vancouver.CreditAlana Paterson for The New York Times

But like the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, there’s unease over how real the current paper wealth of the marijuana industry will ultimately prove to be.

[Read: Marijuana Legalization in Canada Has Companies Chasing a Green Rush]

[Read: A Big Day for Legal Weed Might Not Boost Cannabis Stocks]

There’s more to come from The Times on this experiment. I’ve highlighted some of what we’ll follow in this Times Insider article. For me, the most interesting aspect of legalization will be the tension between the medical community, which worries about the health effects of marijuana and does not want to see its use increase, and the industry, which needs growth to justify its stock prices. We’ll be watching closely to see which way the scales tip.

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