Canada on Wednesday became the world’s first major economy to fully legalise cannabis, sparking celebrations on the streets as the country embarked on the controversial drug policy experiment.
Throughout the country, huge lines outside pot shops snaked around city blocks.
Scores of customers braved the cold for hours outside Tweed, a pot boutique in St John’s, Newfoundland that opened at midnight, to buy their first grams of legal cannabis.
Ian Power said prior to its grand opening, he was happy to “make history” by being the first to legally buy pot in Canada.
“I’m elated. I’m so excited, I can’t stop smiling. I’m not cold. It’s freezing cold out, but I’m not cold,” he said.
In Cape Breton, platinum record-selling fiddler Ashley MacIsaac was among the first buyers, while in Toronto revellers attended a “Wake and Bake” party with music, a glass pipe blower and campfire treats.
“It’s fun, good for the soul, and now legal so we don’t have to stress about that anymore,” Sebastien Bouzats from Montreal told AFP. “We don’t have to hide it anymore.”
Legalisation has sent stocks in pot companies soaring on the Toronto and New York stock exchanges but has also been sharply questioned by some health professionals and opposition politicians.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has defended legalisation — the fulfillment of a 2015 campaign promise — as intended to protect young people and to shut down drug dealers.
The entry into force of the Cannabis Act makes Canada only the second nation after Uruguay to legalise the drug.
How well it goes could have an impact on Canada’s next election in 2019, and on whether other countries follow in its footsteps.
“When people start to see the consequences (of legalisation) they will blame Trudeau’s failures for it,” opposition Tory leader Andrew Scheer commented.
In the United States, recreational cannabis has been legalised in eight states, while countries such as the Netherlands and Spain have decriminalized pot possession.
In total, Statistics Canada says 5.4 million Canadians will buy cannabis from legal dispensaries in 2018 — about 15 per cent of the population. Around 4.9 million already smoke.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale announced a plan to pardon past convictions for simple possession, giving people “greater access to job opportunities, education and housing.”
Under the new regulations, Canadians at least 18 or 19 years old (soon to be 21 in Quebec) will be allowed to buy up to 30 grams of cannabis, and grow up to four plants at home.
A patchwork of private and public cannabis retail stores and online sales have been set up across the 13 provinces and territories, ramping up to 300 storefronts by year’s end, the government predicted.
Sales of derivatives like edibles will be legalised next year.
To meet demand, hundreds of growers have been licensed, some taking over horticulture and floriculture greenhouses.
The new industry has attracted billions in funding, as well as interest from major alcohol and soft drink makers such as Constellation Brands and Coca-Cola, respectively, in developing cannabis-infused drinks.
Cannabis sales are forecast to boost economic growth by up to Can$1.1 billion and provide a Can$400 million tax windfall for the government, according to official data.
It’s still unclear if legalisation will undercut the black market. Prices for illicit pot have plunged to an average of Can$6.79 per gram, and most legal sellers are charging more.
Bill Blair, a former Toronto police chief who is Trudeau’s point man for pot legalisation, remains optimistic.
He acknowledged that criminal enterprises that have long controlled the market for pot and have reaped billions in profits a year “are not going to go gently into the night.”
“But the fact that some individuals want to cling to a prohibition model that has led to the highest rates of cannabis use of any country in the world is a little shocking to me,” he told AFP.
Goodale noted that Can$2-3 billion was spent annually to police cannabis and consumption still rose.
According to a recent Abacus Data poll published on Monday, 70 per cent of Canadians accept or support legalisation.
Public health officials contend that smoking cannabis is as harmful as tobacco, but welcome what they call an opportunity that legalisation affords for open dialogue.
Some doctors, however, remain wary. Diane Kelsall, editor in chief of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, called legalisation “a national, uncontrolled experiment in which the profits of cannabis producers and tax revenues are squarely pitched against the health of Canadians.”