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A queue outside the Fire & Flower cannabis store in Ottawa, Ontario, the day it opened on April 1 this year. The plain exterior belies a high-class interior, and a vast array of products.

Cannabis at the corner store

The policing landscape in New Zealand could be very different this time next year if a referendum results in the legalisation of recreational cannabis. Following a recent fact-finding trip to Canada, Police Association President Chris Cahill offers insights into what could happen here.

In Canada, where cannabis has been legal for just over one year, Chris Cahill met government officials responsible for drafting the legislation, health professionals and police officers.

In many places, he says, the smell of cannabis was unmistakable in the air. It is freely and legally available in specialist cannabis stores and smoked in bars.

What prompted the visit to Canada was to ensure that the association was fully informed on all the issues, as called for by delegates at the 2018 annual conference.

“Police and the public will only benefit from solid evidence guiding their votes and their behaviour should cannabis use be legalised,” Chris says.

For the past year in Canada, the state has assumed control of the production and supply of cannabis at a wholesale level, while each of the country’s 10 provinces and three territories make their own rules about the retail market.

Many outlets, known as dispensaries, were already selling medicinal cannabis, which had been legal for some time in Canada, and this was causing problems. With a medical prescription, an individual was legally allowed to grow hundreds of plants and possess thousands of grams of cannabis, ensuring a healthy supply was inevitably diverted to the black market.

The hope now is that with a highly regulated and steady state-controlled supply, prices can be driven down, shutting out the black market and restricting access to cannabis for people under the age limit (19, except in Quebec and Alberta, where it is 18).

The main players in the new legal market are all big businesses – the only groups that can afford the regulatory and security costs necessary to get a licence. Even America’s home and living guru Martha Stewart has popped up on the scene, acting as an adviser to a Canadian cannabis company that is developing non-THC products for pets.

“So the idea of small operators getting in on the legal action hasn’t happened yet,” Chris says. Consequently, there are still many smaller illegal traders who can undercut the legal retail market.

Online sales are also proving a popular way to buy cannabis – delivered by Canada Post – although many are also outside the law.

Gathering intel at a Vancouver watering hole, Chris was informed that it was still possible to buy a 1oz bag of cannabis from an illegal dealer for $100 as opposed to $180 from a retail outlet.

The biggest difference between New Zealand and Canada, says Chris, was its existing market for medicinal cannabis, “which had created a very grey area around the supply to recreational users”.

Chris is clear that medicinal cannabis is, and should be, a separate issue to recreational cannabis.

Apart from a focus on health and education issues, there were other reasons behind the law change in Canada, which was enacted by the government, not as the result of a referendum. Anyone with a cannabis conviction was prevented from travelling to the United States, and, with 80 per cent of Canadians living on the border with America, that was proving restrictive.

Another factor was the inequity becoming apparent in the justice system as most of those charged with cannabis offences were from lower socio-economic groups, creating an instant entry point into the justice pipeline.

In Canada, each province makes its own rules about the retail market, which has resulted in some inconsistencies. For example, Alberta, population 4.3 million, has 250 stores, while Ontario, population 14.3m, has only 25.

According to Statistics Canada, between October 2018 and July 2019, the cannabis sales figures for those two provinces were C$144.9m and $151.1m respectively, which means that, per head of population, Alberta is raking it in.

The black market is also more likely to flourish in provinces with fewer legal outlets, although the Canadian Government reports that between 42 and 48 per cent of users are now buying cannabis legally – a market share that would be the envy of any new business after one year.

The variety and choice of products is staggering, says Chris, but retailers report most users still opt for the cheapest product with the highest potency.

There are some rules around the supply, with retailers only allowed to sell a certain amount of each product every week.

Despite the required plain shopfronts of the retail stores, they have an alluring ambience once inside. “They are very smart, fashionable, high-end places, with an extraordinary variety of cannabis available, all broken down by THC levels and CBD potency and various flavours for vaping.”

The fact is, says Chris, “cannabis was already being widely consumed in Canada. The government didn’t invent cannabis use, it legalised it. It didn’t lead to the opening of the floodgates, and young people had already been big users”.

Statistics from a Health Canada survey show that, after an initial spike, use settled down to around the same as it previously was (bearing in mind, Chris says, that this was an opt-in survey).

The only discernible increase was in the 65-plus age group, who may previously have been deterred from using cannabis because it was illegal.

“With a strictly regulated system aimed at better health outcomes, the Canadian system is quite different to the legal cannabis regime in the US, which is focused firmly on tax dividends,”
Chris says.

The overwhelming response from everyone he met was that the law change had not caused any major issues. “Everyone compared it to the Y2K moment before the year 2000. There was a lot of fear about the changes in the drug law and then… nothing happened. And a year later that is still the case.”

Chris spoke to experts in addiction and health services. “Some did express concern that the harm from cannabis had been downplayed in favour of all the talk around business opportunities. Suddenly, it’s a wonder drug that cures everything.”

It’s not and it doesn’t, says Chris, but one benefit of legalisation is that there is now opportunity for better research.

As for the role of law enforcement in Canada, cannabis was already, as it is in New Zealand, a relatively small part of police work, Chris says.

“In Canada, the police are more focused on the massive opioid crisis that is killing 4500 people a year.”

Chris saw the damage for himself in downtown Vancouver where hundreds of people are living on the streets and openly injecting killer drugs.

With drug-driving, police said there was no evidence of an increase, but there was still no reliable regime for testing cannabis impairment on the road. “Some provinces have invested in drug breathalyser kits, but they are not practical because of their size and accuracy.”

However, just because there is no evidence of an increase in drug-driving doesn’t mean it is any less dangerous than it was before legalisation, Chris says.

On the thorny issue of personal cannabis use by police, the rules vary among the provinces, from applying the same impairment testing as for alcohol to the more extreme example of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police which prohibits any cannabis use 28 days before coming to work.

The one aspect of the new regime that the Canadian Police Association (CPS) did challenge were the rules around the legal home growing of four cannabis plants.

“The CPA argued that this would be virtually impossible to police, while having the potential to waste many police resources responding to complaints of illegal growing,” Chris says.

“It also opens the most significant opportunity for the black market to continue to supply cannabis and, therefore, negates one of the key reasons for the reforms – that if there is a successful legal retail market, there is no requirement for home grows.

“It will be interesting to see how this part of the legislation impacts on the principles behind the reforms.”

Summing up what he learnt from his trip to Canada, Chris says: “What became clear to me was that if cannabis is legalised in New Zealand, it must be accompanied by strong and enforceable legislation which will require resourcing and planning for it to be a better alternative than the current regime.

“You’ve got to be able to produce enough supply, and cheap enough, to shut gangs out of the black market.

“In New Zealand right now, gangs have suppressed the supply of cannabis with the aim of selling more lucrative methamphetamine. Any market, even if it is providing jobs in communities, would have to be done in a way that cut out the black market.”

With concerns about mental health, Chris says it is probably too early to know what the outcomes might be, “but, if you can control the level of THC that users are exposed to, that would be helpful, and that is possible in a regulated marketplace”.

With the right regulations and the right marketplace, legalisation has the ability to reduce harm, he says.

The Canadian Federal Government has invested C$500 million (NZ$590m) over five years to administer the act and fund cannabis education programmes, which will continue to be funded by a levy on producers. The provinces also get 75 per cent of sales taxes.

Canada’s Minister of Border Security and Organised Crime Reduction, Bill Blair, a former police officer who led the change in the law, told Chris that legalisation was “a process, not an event. The system was failing and all we were doing was feeding organised crime. We had to stop that”.

He stressed that legalisation rather than decriminalisation was the way to drive out organised crime. “Decriminalisation protects users from the police, but not from organised crime.”

The association’s position on the issue of cannabis reform remains “neutral”, Chris says. “We’ll wait to see the draft legislation and then comment at that point. It is also worth remembering that when it comes to harm, no drugs come close to alcohol as a driver of crime.”

If the law changes here, New Zealand will be only the third country after Uruguay and Canada to have gone down the path of legalisation rather than decriminalisation.

One area where Canada seems to have missed a beat, Chris says, is in proper engagement with First Nations tribes. “The Ministry of Public Safety, a federal body, got it wrong in not getting in early to involve the First Nations in production and licensing. Consequently, many are continuing to operate outside the law.”

The next big impact on the sector in Canada is predicted to be the rollout of “cannabis 2.0” – the legalisation of edible products, drinks, topical creams and vape oils, favoured by younger users.

Meanwhile, Chris says, he hopes that in New Zealand there will be a “comprehensive, open and evidence-based discussion” ahead of the referendum.

Police will enforce whatever the law is at that time, but in the event of a yes vote in 2020, forewarned is forearmed.

The referendum

 

When New Zealanders vote next year on whether or not to legalise personal use of recreational cannabis, they will have draft legislation on which to base their decision.

It will include regulations and controls on commercial supply, limited home-growing options, a public education programme and stakeholder engagement.

By going public with a bill, the Governmnent aims to avoid confusion such as seen in Britain’s disastrous Brexit-Yes/No scenario, in which a majority of voters opted to leave the European Union without knowing exactly what that meant for the United Kingdom.

If the public endorses the legislation, it would:

  • Legalise personal use and purchase at age 20
  • Allow sales only at licensed premises
  • Allow consumption only at licensed premises or on private property
  • Allow limited homegrowing
  • Ban all advertising for cannabis products

Although Justice Minister Andrew Little has previously said the referendum will be binding, the reality is that in event of a “yes” vote, it will be up to the Government to decide whether to proceed with the process for passing the bill, which will include select committee hearings.

If there is a change of government and the new government does not wish to pass the bill, it cannot be bound by a past government, even if that means undermining the referendum by disregarding the public’s will.

The Government is beginning to engage interested parties in the referendum process. It plans to release the finalised regulatory model early next year and, in tandem with the Electoral Commission, start a voter education campaign.