Chronicling Canada’s Cannabis Experiment

In late 2018, the landmark case of Billy Caldwell—a child who relied on cannabis oil to control his seizures—came to a conclusion. The UK government allowed the drug to be prescribed medicinally in certain circumstances in a move that has been called the first step on the road to legalising recreational cannabis. BBC Newsbeat looked into the issue further by following three MPs on a trip funded by the advocacy organisation Volteface to Canada, the first Western country to take the step of legalisation. Spanning the political divide, the results of their research seem to indicate that the tide of opinion is turning in favour of such a move. 

Newsbeat first visited Vancouver, the centre of Canada’s burgeoning legal cannabis trade and the cutting edge of the ‘world’s biggest drugs experiment’. Meeting the ‘Cannabis Editor’ of a local newspaper, the ready availability of the drug points to both the benefits and teething troubles of its legalisation. Black market consumption remains high at just over half of all sales, but as former Toronto police chief Bill Blair was eager to point out, this significant reduction marks only the first phase of a long-term initiative by the country’s government to reduce the market share occupied by illegal suppliers. The greatest benefit to date, Blair argued, was perhaps an even stronger draw: legalising cannabis removes the need to criminalise a generation of young Canadians.

The MPs’ stances on the issue varied considerably, though all saw recreational drug use as a concern. Two, Labour’s David Lammy and the Conservative Jonathan Djangoly, noted the impact that the illicit cannabis industry was having on their constituencies. Lammy in particular pointed out that for many young people in his Tottenham seat, their first contact with police came via the drug, opening the door to more serious offences. The final MP, Sir Norman Lamb of the Liberal Democrats, went into the experiment with a more sympathetic attitude as his party is currently the only major parliamentary grouping which seeks legalisation. A visit to a legal supplier was followed by a trip to a major commercial producer of the plant. Allowing production to move into purpose-built, ventilated facilities allows the Canadian product to be generally freer of impurities, something backed up by regulation and crucial in removing impurities, making cannabis safer for public consumption. Lamb even tested a small quantity of low-strength cannabis oil to aid his sleeping, reporting that he suffered no side-effects or, indeed, most of the effects commonly linked to illegal cannabis. This informed his conclusion that in the event of legalisation, safety could be greatly improved by introducing a minimum quantity of CBD, a substance that controls the drug’s potency and can be varied as required by lawmakers or retailers. Lammy’s conclusion, having been impressed by Canada’s handling of the issue, was more simple: by taking the market out of the hands of criminals, young people are spared the gateway a cannabis-related arrest can provide into more serious criminal pursuits. 

The main point made regarding Canada was that legalisation remains the first step in a long process, the ultimate goal of which is to entirely shift production and supply out of the black market and into the hands of legitimate retailers. It was suggested that the next phase could centre on lifting the heavy levels of government involvement in most legal supply, a factor which currently gives black market sellers the competitive edge. After a largely successful first stage in Canada, David Lammy’s closing comments on the issue carry overtones of another great North American social experiment, resolved ultimately by empowering legitimate retailers. ‘Prohibition’, he said, ‘isn’t working’.