“Because it's 2015.” The definitive mic-drop political punctuation. So easy to execute when perfectly placed. I have finished speaking, and no one else shall speak after me. The new “Just Watch Me.” I love it.
For the past two years, in my political world, marijuana activists have endorsed Justin Trudeau as the way to legalize marijuana in Canada. Vote Liberal, no matter what, and they are going to legalize. That was the message, loud and clear. Only the Conservatives were against marijuana. All other parties said “legalize” or “decriminalize.” Running as a candidate for the Marijuana Party, as I did again in 2015 in Ottawa Centre, seemed a moot point to others. During the campaign the only question people had for me was “Why run at all?”
Screenshot from Tweed’s hip medicinal marijuana website where customers can select from 25 strains based on their preferred chemical profile.
Marijuana prohibition is the political football in that much-loved Peanuts sketch. Charlie Brown is at the ready, with Justin Trudeau teeing up his life affirming kick. The ball has been pulled away before by prime ministers John Turner, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. Stephen Harper brought in mandatory minimums at the criminal end, and tried to sabotage Health Canada's licensing system at the medicinal end. The Harper regime was out of step with what is going on in the rest of the world.
In 2001, Portugal decriminalized heroin, cocaine and cannabis. It remains a crime to profit from the sale or distribution of illegal drugs, but the user was not criminalized for possession. If a person is found with less than a 10-day supply, they must meet a three-person Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, usually made up of a lawyer, a doctor and a social worker. The commission will recommend treatment, a minor fine or, as in most cases, no penalty at all.
In 1990, 1% of the Portuguese population was addicted to heroin. Portugal now has the lowest addiction rate of illegal drugs in all of Europe. After 14 decriminalized years, overall rates of drug use, drug addiction, drug overdose, HIV and accidental death have all gone down. Following Portugal’s lead, the governments of Spain and Italy have also decriminalized. Copenhagen’s city government announced in 2014 the beginning of a three-year pilot project to test whether municipalities could take over the growing and distribution of cannabis. In 2015, Ireland also announced it would decriminalize based on the Portugal model.
In December of 2013, Uruguay became the first country to legalize marijuana. Citizens there are allowed to grow six plants at home, and can participate in private grow clubs if they want to grow more. All sales must go through government-run dispensaries, while consumers, who are restricted to purchasing 40 grams per month, must register with a health ministry database. In order to undercut organized crime, the price of marijuana is kept at the equivalent of $1 per gram.
On February 6, 2015, the 70th anniversary of the birth of Nesta Robert Marley, Jamaica decriminalized ganja. Possession of 56 grams (two ounces) can result in a fine of $5, but no arrest or criminal record. Citizens may grow five plants at home, and adult Rastafarians may use ganja for sacramental purposes for the first time in history. Foreigners that have a prescription or licence for medicinal marijuana will be able to get a permit that allows them to purchase two ounces of local medicinal marijuana to be used during their stay. Although the infrastructure and policies in Jamaica are unclear, there is a Cannabis Commercial and Medicinal Task Force hammering out the details.
And of course there is the United States of America. Already 17 states have medicinal marijuana. Oregon, Alaska, Washington, D.C. and Colorado have all embraced recreational marijuana at the state level. Let's thank Washington first.
In 2013, D.C. police arrested 1,215 people for marijuana possession, more than 90% of them black even though Blacks use marijuana at the same rate as anybody else. It became a civil rights issue, with activists pushing for decriminalization in July of 2014 before switching their demands to legalization. In 2014, D.C. Police arrested seven people for drug possession.
Colorado followed this example and fully embraced recreational marijuana. In 2014, Colorado, a state with a population of just under 5.5 million, collected US$44 million in tax revenue from marijuana. As of 2015, Colorado brings in roughly US$10 million per month from a marijuana tax—more than comes in from alcohol sales.
Canada's illegal marijuana industry has been valued at over $7 billion annually, with some estimating $21 billion. Twenty per cent of Canadians admit they have used marijuana in the past year; more than 30% say they would use it if legalized. Police in Canada report a marijuana possession incident every nine minutes in 2014—a 30% increase since Stephen Harper came to power in 2006.
The war on drugs has been an abject failure. It has cost human lives, millions of hours of police and court time, millions of years of jail and prison time, and billions of tax dollars. There is no reefer madness, only organized systems of violence and oppression—some of it criminal, some government-based—to prevent people from using plants.
There are now dozens of models of legalization and decriminalization we could follow. They would all reduce harm and be incredibly lucrative, not just as tax revenue, but by encouraging an industry of recreational and tourist marijuana that would put even more money into the economy. Justin Trudeau’s mandate letter to Jody Wilson-Raybould directed Canada’s new justice minister and attorney general to “create a federal-provincial-territorial process that will lead to the legalization and regulation of marijuana,” just as his party platform had promised.
“So why run?” asked a group of Carleton University students during a candidates debate. Though I was not invited to join the panel, which included Canada’s future environment minister, the moderators permitted me to ask one question from the floor.
“In order to legalize or decriminalize, are you prepared to let people out of jail, expunge their criminal record, end all police action for marijuana, end all court action against marijuana, and when all is said and done, how many plants can I grow?” I asked.
There were cheers, laughter and applause, but also shock from the panel. No candidate had ever been asked that before. It doesn't matter what their answers were. The policy has yet to be written.
The day after the election, medicinal marijuana companies did well on the TSX. Canopy Growth Corp. (Tweed Marijuana) saw stocks increase 9%, Mettrum’s jumped 8%, and Aphria Inc. added 5% to the value of its stock. The medicinal marijuana industry is estimated to reach $100 million annually; a recreational market of $2 billion is waiting. Legalize. Make it rain. But do it right.
After the election, building on my question at the Carleton debate, I updated my Facebook status with six points I believe must be part of any legislation or policy to legalize marijuana. They were:
- First Nations people shall not be interfered with by any police force or government agent in their nations or within their territory;
- Police must immediately cease and desist all actions, including fines, fees, penalties and charges, against marijuana growers and users of marijuana;
- Any person in prison or under house arrest for a marijuana-related offence must be released immediately, and they must be compensated;
- All criminal records for marijuana-related offences must be expunged immediately;
- Any and all cases currently before the court for cultivation or possession will be dismissed immediately; and
- No Canadian citizen will be treated with any less consideration than Justin Trudeau himself, who was not fired or forced to resign, not charged, arrested or subject to a raid, did not have his children taken away, kept his passport and was allowed to travel to the U.S. and back despite admitting he had smoked marijuana recreationally.
On writing this article, I realized this list was missing one item, which shall be the capstone:
- Home cultivation of plants for personal, medicinal and recreational use must be included in the new legislation. This would include private clubs for growers, and compassion clubs to augment the medicinal system.
I believe marijuana prohibition to be a racist, “old stock,” biased and prejudiced war on non-violent people, targeting and most adversely affecting people of low income. I do not know how to write policy or legislation for international, TSX-listed corporations so they can operate their multi-million-dollar grow operations and grow their stock. And it seems problematic to me that businessmen among Canada’s 1% will be the ones to profit from growing, cultivating and selling marijuana for profit, while hundreds of people that I have met, and who voted for me in this and past elections, have had their lives ruined by the same system.
To decriminalize usually means leaving the end user alone and going after the importer, manufacturer or distributor. To legalize usually means creating a system that is regulated for health and safety standards, and taxed. But legalizing also means tough restrictions on anybody that does not follow the policy.
Canada is a marijuana exporting country and has some of the highest rates of consumption of marijuana on earth. It is possible to have a system that accommodates the ethical growing of marijuana and empowers the citizen to be able to use this plant to the fullest potential. Medicinal, yes. Recreational, of course. And don't forget industrial: using hemp for fuel, textiles and construction could help rejuvenate or replace Canada's weakening forestry industry.
As a political candidate since 2004, I have had many meetings with Elections Canada officials prior to and after the election as part of an advisory committee. We fight, we bicker, we argue, we compare notes. At the last one there was much less hostility. Many told me marijuana activists should declare victory. When I raised my vision for a just legalization, one that would not let the corporate players crowd everyone else, one committee member suggested I make an appointment with the prime minister himself, to sit down, break bread, have a real tête-à-tête. “Don't take no for an answer” they said. “Because it’s 2015.”
John Akpata is an Ottawa-based spoken word artist and longtime member of the Marijuana Party of Canada. He has run federally in Ottawa in each election since 2004.
This article was published in the January/February 2016 issue of The Monitor. Click here for more or to download the whole issue.