On April 13th Trudeau’s Liberals tabled a bill in the House of Commons to legalize marijuana in Canada. Following their reversal on many key campaign promises, the Federal Liberals seem to be bending to pressure and are actually delivering on something! Legalization is undoubtedly popular among young people and nearly two thirds of the general population is supportive. But as they say, the devil is in the details and in typical Liberal fashion, there are some nasty little details.
The legislation would make it legal for anyone over the age of 18 to purchase fresh or dried cannabis, cannabis oils, seeds and plants. Adults will be permitted to carry and share up to 30 grams in a public place at any time and grow up to four plants in any residence. It could be adopted as law in Canada as early as July 2018, but they have refused to decriminalize cannabis in the interim. Until that date pot remains illegal and people will continue to be prosecuted.
The crackdown continues
Paradoxically, in opposition to the hype, the main focus of Trudeau’s legislation seems to be a crackdown on pot smokers and marijuana consumption in general. Eyebrows were first raised about the Liberal Party’s intentions when they put former Toronto police chief, Bill Blair, in charge of leading the implementation of the party’s campaign promise. During Blair’s time as the head of the Toronto police department, the number of marijuana-related arrests rose from 1,837 in 2005, to 5,610 in the first 10 months of 2013. He was also Toronto’s top cop during the 2010 G20 protests, which witnessed the mass arrest of over 2000 and wholesale violations of civil liberties. With Blair at the head, is it really surprising that this legislation is more about criminalization than anything else?
While the Liberal Party website correctly says that the current enforcement of cannabis law “traps too many Canadians in the criminal justice system for minor, non-violent offenses,” the current legislation does little to solve this situation and in many ways just makes matters worse. For example, there will be up to a 14-year penalty for anyone caught selling weed illegally. It also applies the same 14-year penalty for anyone selling or giving marijuana to someone under the age of 18.
To put this in perspective, under current Canadian law, the same maximum 14-year sentence applies to crimes such as sexually assaulting a child, severely assaulting a police officer, creating child pornography, human trafficking and many terrorism related offenses. In comparison to alcohol related offenses, giving alcohol to a minor in Ontario is met with a maximum fine of $200,000 and jail time of up to one year.
If this legislation passes, police will be given sweeping powers and will be able to conduct roadside tests for impaired driving to detect alcohol and take “oral fluid samples” to test for marijuana impairment without the need for reasonable probable grounds, which some lawyers are saying may violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Under the new law, penalties for being found driving with a significant amount of THC in your blood stream would range from a $1,000 fine to up to 10 years in jail.
Roadside tests have been widely criticized as being problematic as the effects of marijuana while driving and our ability to reliably test inebriation still lack scientific verification. Indeed, even the federal government’s cannabis task force itself acknowledged that “cannabis-impaired driving is more complex to study than alcohol-impaired driving” and stated that “while scientists agree that THC impairs driving performance, the level of THC in bodily fluids cannot be used to reliably indicate the degree of impairment or crash risk”.
The problem, as the task force identified, is that “whereas evidence was gathered over many years to arrive at an established metric for alcohol intoxication – Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) – these types of data do not exist for cannabis.” Scientifically, it is currently difficult to determine the level of impairment based on THC levels in the blood. As the task force noted, “some heavy, regular users of cannabis, including those who use cannabis for medical purposes, may not show any obvious signs of impairment even with significant THC concentrations in their blood. Conversely, infrequent users with the same or lower THC concentrations may demonstrate more significant impairment.” Given this, it is likely that these roadside saliva tests will result in widespread criminalization of tens of thousands for having done nothing wrong.
The reality is that this legislation is a continuation of the “War on Drugs” and the Harper-era “tough on crime” approach. The fact that these laws will clearly affect youth and minority communities was openly admitted by Trudeau himself when he told a story of how, due to his privileged life, his father was able to use his connections to make weed-related charges against his late brother Michel “go away.”
Under the current legal framework, there is clearly one law for the rich and powerful and a completely different law for the rest of us. In response to a question about what he plans on doing with the tens of thousands of people who have criminal records for marijuana related crimes, Trudeau was noncommittal.
But the 50,000 people every year arrested for marijuana-related crimes will not be amnestied and the Liberals are actually encouraging the continuation of arrests. “Existing laws prohibiting possession and use of cannabis remain in place, and they need to be respected,” declared veteran MP Ralph Goodale. “This must be an orderly transition. It is not a free-for-all.”
The vast majority of these offenses are minor, non-violent and these arrests disproportionately affect youth in general and poor racialized youth in particular.
This continues to saddle tens of thousands of people with criminal records which is no small thing. This can have severe negative impacts, such as reducing chances of getting hired and placing limits on the ability to travel.
Most of the people who voted for the Liberals in the last election and support the legalization of marijuana probably didn’t have draconian legislation such as this in mind, with severe penalties for infractions and new sweeping police powers. Indeed, many people feel betrayed and now see the legalization of marijuana as another in a long string of Liberal lies, swindles and cons.
The current legislation continues the mentality of the so-called “War on Drugs.” This is in reality a war on the poor and racialized minorities and has been an abject failure, which even is being admitted by the Liberals now. The question of marijuana and other drugs should not be seen as a criminal or financial issue, but a social one. The way forward on these questions is not the continued criminalization of drug users with severe penalties and prison sentences.
We call for the complete and immediate decriminalization of all drugs combined with massive investment in social, health and addiction services. We call for the immediate amnesty of all of those arrested for marijuana related offenses and the removal of all criminal records of those who have been charged in the past.
Exactly how the legalized production and sale of marijuana will look remains unknown. This is because, as with alcohol, the provinces will ultimately be responsible for regulating the distribution and sale of marijuana. And as in the case for alcohol, each province will have its own set of rules and regulations.
The Trudeau government has already stated that it wants the minimum legal age for purchasing marijuana to be set at 18; however, the provinces will be able to set a higher minimum age if they want – but that’s not all.
In the case of alcohol, there are major differences in the provinces in terms of alcohol regulation. In some provinces alcohol can be purchased at 18 (such as Alberta), in others it is 19 (such as Ontario). There are also differences in terms of opening hours for bars and liquor stores, the time of last call, locations and events where sales are permitted and of course whether the sale and distribution of alcohol is in the public or private sector.
In fact, the provinces will have broad powers when it comes to regulating marijuana, including the ability to set prices. As was pointed out by former Tory MP Brent Rathgeber, “The power to regulate also includes the power to prohibit.”
In theory, the provinces could basically still prohibit marijuana. Rathgeber explained that “Provinces could make marijuana regulations so arbitrary and onerous that they effectively ban the stuff. They could raise the legal age from 18 to 50 — or to 200. A province could authorize only one agent to sell marijuana, locate it on top of a mountain and limit its hours to 4 a.m. to 4:15 a.m. every second Christmas Day.”
However, at the end of the day outright prohibition in the provinces seems unlikely. The legalized marijuana industry will be very lucrative not just for corporations, but for governments as well, who see it as a new source of revenue.
An article in the National Post last year explained that “in the first seven months of 2015, Colorado took in $70 million in marijuana sales taxes, nearly double what it made on alcohol. The amount far exceeded expectations, as well as taxes generated the previous year, when cannabis was officially legalized.”
Trudeau has been very clear that the federal government’s legalization of marijuana has nothing to do with benefitting recreational users. The Liberal Party website clearly states the goal of the new legislation:
“To ensure that we keep marijuana out of the hands of children, and the profits out of the hands of criminals, we will legalize, regulate, and restrict access to marijuana. We will remove marijuana consumption and incidental possession from the Criminal Code, and create new, stronger laws to punish more severely those who provide it to minors, those who operate a motor vehicle while under its influence, and those who sell it outside of the new regulatory framework.”
Even with the draconian measures against selling marijuana to minors, it remains to be seen whether the new regulatory framework will have an impact on access to marijuana and usage rates amongst youth. The previous prohibition of marijuana did not prevent youth from accessing marijuana, and alcohol and tobacco laws do not prevent youth from accessing these products.
Depending on how the legal distribution and sale of marijuana is implemented in the provinces, this new legislation may not keep profits out of the hands of criminals either, and may end up not being the cash cow governments are hoping for. As experience in Colorado and other American states has shown, if the price is set too high, people will stick with their black and grey market suppliers and shun the legal, regulated market.
Looking closer to home, if we consider the case of tobacco, a recent study indicates that some 30 percent of cigarettes sold in Ontario are purchased illegally. There is no reason to believe it will be any different for marijuana.
Libertarian pot paradise or corporate weed monopoly?
The big question is, as always: who benefits? Absent from the proposed legislation are any details about how marijuana will be legally sold, how much it will cost, or any information on how it will be taxed. As it is, the current market for the production of medicinal marijuana is dominated by 43 licensed enterprises. Many of these companies such as Canopy Growth Corp., Aurora Cannabis Inc. and OrganiGram Holdings Inc. are quite large and are poised to pounce on this opportunity to set up massive grow-ops and corner the market.
Indeed, cannabis giant Aurora Cannabis has already began construction of the “World’s Largest, Most Advanced, Automated Cannabis Production Facility” located in Leduc County, Alberta. This 800,000 square foot facility is scheduled to open in October this year and will be able to produce 100,000 kilos of cannabis per year to meet the demand once the product is legal for recreational use. As well, Aurora seems to be frantically expanding its productive capacity in general, recently purchasing a 40,000-square-foot cannabis-production facility in Montreal, Quebec for $7-million. Another example, Delta 9 Bio-Tech, the oldest and largest licensed producer in Manitoba is also ramping up production, with the goal of producing $150 million worth of marijuana products a year. Canopy Growth Corp., a company worth over $1.7 billion, has over half a million square feet of indoor and greenhouse production capacity. Canopy has also been gobbling up smaller players, which was seen last year when they took over Mettrum Health.
Concentration of capital is already well underway in the industry and will only continue with legalization. It is these big players, and not the small producers and storefront dispensaries that will benefit the most from the proposed legalization of marijuana in Canada.
Contrary to what seems to be taking place on the ground, Trudeau has used the beer industry as an example saying that “…regardless of the big corporate beers, people like their micro-brews. We know that people are going to want to choose organic or low pesticides or a particular this or a particular that and there is going to be an opportunity for small producers to get regulated and to sell product.”
But how will these small producers actually compete with these multibillion dollar giants who already have the market cornered and will be capable of cheaply producing mass quantities of marijuana?
While the proposed bill is slim on details on how pot will actually be legally sold, one thing is certain, under capitalism it is not going to be the utopian small business paradise that many pot activists envisage. Medicinal marijuana is already a highly concentrated, fast-growing multibillion dollar industry in Canada and the legalization of recreational use will only continue this trend as capital floods into this industry looking to cash in on the exorbitant profits to be made.
A recent article by Margaret Wente published in the Globe and Mail made the picture very clear: “The biggest winners will be the current incumbents in the business. Despite the fantasies of nostalgic hippies and pot libertarians, there will be no room in the market for artisanal growers or idealistic mom-and-pop pot shops. They won’t be able to compete. Waiting in the wings are well-capitalized investors who are poised to set up massive grow-ops and sophisticated retail and mail-order chains, with the expertise and lawyers to help them through all the hoops that governments devise. Many of these pot pioneers are intimately familiar with the workings of government, having been in it themselves. As in the U.S., they will work closely with politicians and bureaucrats to make sure the regulations are as advantageous and market-friendly to themselves as possible.”
In fact, the chair of the marijuana task force which was so central in the shaping of this legislation, Anne McLellan has recently been in hot water over her connections to the industry for which she was advising regulation. McLellan is in fact a senior advisor at Bennett Jones LLP., the go-to legal advisor for many of the big marijuana producers which seek to profit from the legislation in which she was a key player in creating. On top of this, Bennett Jones LLP and a dozen of its lawyers are listed on a securities document of one of these companies that will benefit.
No doubt, these big pot capitalists have deep connections within both federal and provincial governments and will use these connections to make sure that any legislation passed will guarantee their domination of the market and their continued profits.
Say No To Corporate Pot!
These big marijuana producers are just like any other capitalist industry and will always put their profit before all else to the detriment of the workers and consumers. Workers in the marijuana industry are classified as agricultural workers, which has a significant impact on their rights. In Ontario, for example, this means they are not covered by the Labour Relations Act and cannot unionize.
As the Toronto Star pointed out: “Agricultural workers in Ontario — from people who cultivate weed to those who produce your locally grown food — have no bargaining power. They cannot withhold their labour. Employers do not have to bargain in good faith. Complaints of unfair labour practices must be brought to a tribunal, which lacks labour relations expertise. No union has been able to strike a collective agreement in this legislative framework.”
As well, the marijuana industry also employs many migrant workers under the temporary foreign worker program. These workers are particularly vulnerable as they have “closed” work permits, meaning they can only work for one employer and can only stay in Canada a maximum of four years and only so long as they continue to work for the same company. The Toronto Star pointed out that “the closed work permit ensures their employers call the shots, with no talkback. The short duration of most of these jobs ensures that they’ll see no increase in pay or benefits.”
Despite the hopes of many, the reality of this legislation is that we now face the prospect of a corporatized and monopolized marijuana industry where massive corporations make fantastic profits on the basis of the ruthless exploitation of the workers in the industry who don’t even have the ability to defend themselves. With no rights to unionize or collective bargaining, this exploitation will only increase with the continued expansion of the industry and must be opposed.
What is the Socialist Approach?
The marijuana industry in Canada is already a multibillion dollar industry and corporate Canada is salivating at the mouth at the exorbitant profits to be made when commercial sale is legalized. According to a recent study, legalized marijuana sales in Canada could be as large as wine sales at an estimated $8.7 billion per year. In total, legalized marijuana could give the Canadian economy a boost of up to $22.6 billion! But where will these profits go?
In order to guarantee that the immense profits made from the marijuana industry are not simply gobbled up by the pot profiteers, we demand that the production and sale of marijuana be nationalized and the profits dedicated to the needs of society. These billions of dollars should be dedicated to things like mental health services or legal aide for poor and marginalized communities. This however can only really be guaranteed if the industry is under public ownership. Democratic workers’ control will also allow consumers and workers alike to have a say in how and what is being produced and how it is sold.
On top of this, the tens of thousands of jobs created in this industry should be good jobs with full union rights, including good wages and benefits. This will put an end to the merciless exploitation of migrant workers through horrible programs like the Temporary Foreign Worker Program which companies use to divide workers and lower wages and benefits overall.
Above all we must end the war on drugs and the criminalization of racialized workers and youth. It is scandalous that thousands are still being victimized, with life-long repercussions, while the legislation is winding its way through the House of Commons. Prohibition has not stopped consumption, it is merely a convenient tool to empower the capitalist state. Trudeau’s own admission makes it clear that this is a class-based law that does not apply to the rich and powerful. We demand immediate decriminalization for marijuana, as well as other drugs, with investment in health and social services under the philosophy of harm reduction. The draconian penalties outlined in Trudeau’s legislation also follow the war on drugs approach. While there should be reasonable limits on underage use and inebriated driving, in no way should any penalty for pot use be more harsh than an equivalent penalty related to alcohol and tobacco (and these too should be reviewed and taken out of the hands of big business). Science and social impact needs to be driving force in any regulation, not the morality police.
Marxists are not pro or anti pot, or any other drug. We are not surprised that in capitalist society people turn to anything that gives them an outlet and escape from the crisis of the status quo. After the fall of the USSR, with a massive reduction in life expectancy and increase in unemployment, alcoholism and drug use skyrocketed. In a socialist society we would combine healthcare and education to encourage responsible use. There is an analogy with alcohol – on the European continent there is no drinking age, and minors often have a glass of wine with dinner. Such socialization leads to lower rates of alcohol abuse and alcoholism than in Anglo Saxon countries with a history of prohibition. Every analogy has limits, and there are a range of risks associated with each drug, but criminalization has been proved to exacerbate the harm. When people have hope for a better future they make better life choices. When there is no hope, people live for the now. We fight for a happier healthier society that does not base itself on police enforcement and criminalization. Capitalism has no solution to these problems.