Canada Marijuana Legalization

Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP

Recreational Marijuana Becomes Legal In Canada

October 17, 2018 - 5:18 pm
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MONTREAL (WCBS 880/AP) -- Recreational marijuana became legal across Canada on Wednesday.

Jubilant customers stood in long lines for hours, and then lit up and celebrated on sidewalks as the U.S.’ northerly neighbor became the world's largest legal marijuana marketplace.

“So far, it seems like things have gone pretty smoothly. There have been relatively big lines across the country – at least in the provinces where stores are open,” said Bloomberg Reporter Kristine Owram. “I’m in Halifax, Nova Scotia on the East Coast, so one of the first provinces to have stores open today. Lines were as long as 130 people before the store downtown opened that I was at – a lot of very enthusiastic people waiting to see what the first legal cannabis store would like; most of them pretty familiar with the product, but wanted to check out what the legal market was going to be like.”

In Toronto, people smoked joints as soon as they rolled out of bed in a big "wake and bake" celebration. In Alberta, a government website that sells pot crashed when too many people tried to place orders.

And in Montreal, Graeme Campbell welcomed the day he could easily buy all the pot he wanted.

"It's hard to find people to sell to me because I look like a cop," the clean-cut, 43-year-old computer programmer said outside a newly opened pot store.

He and his friend Alex Lacrosse were smoking a joint when two police officers walked by. "I passed you a joint right in front of them and they didn't even bat an eye," Lacrosse told his friend.

Festivities erupted throughout the nation as Canada became the largest country on the planet with legal marijuana sales. At least 111 pot shops were expected to open Wednesday across the nation of 37 million people, with many more to come, according to an Associated Press survey of the provinces. Uruguay was the first country to legalize marijuana.

Ian Power was first in line at a store St. John's but didn't plan to smoke the one gram he bought after midnight.

"I am going to frame it and hang it on my wall," the 46-year-old Power said. "I'm going to save it forever."

Tom Clarke, an illegal pot dealer for three decades, opened a pot store in Portugal Cove, Newfoundland, and made his first sale to his dad. He was cheered by the crowd waiting in line.

"This is awesome. I've been waiting my whole life for this," Clarke said. "I am so happy to be living in Canada right now instead of south of the border."

The start of legal sales wasn't the only good news for pot aficionados: Canada said it intends to pardon everyone with convictions for possessing up to 30 grams of marijuana, the newly legal threshold.

"I don't need to be a criminal anymore, and that's a great feeling," Canadian singer Ashley MacIsaac said outside a government run shop in Nova Scotia. "And my new dealer is the prime minister!"

Medical marijuana has been legal since 2001 in Canada, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government has spent the past two years working toward legalizing recreational pot to better reflect society's changing opinion about marijuana and bring black market operators into a regulated system.

With supply shortages, eradication of the black market is unlikely for at least a year, Owram said.

Corey Stone and a friend got to one of the 12 stores that opened in Quebec at 3:45 a.m. to be among the first to buy pot. Hundreds later lined up.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing — you're never ever going to be one of the first people able to buy legal recreational cannabis in Canada ever again," said Stone, a 32-year restaurant and bar manager.

The stores have a sterile look, like a modern clinic, with a security desk to check identification. The products are displayed in plastic or cardboard packages behind counters. Buyers can't touch or smell the products before they buy. A small team of employees answer questions but don't make recommendations.

"It's a candy store, I like the experience," said Vincent Desjardins, a 20-year-old-student who plans to apply for a job at the Montreal shop.

Canadians can also order marijuana products through websites run by provinces or private retailers and have it delivered to their home by mail.

At 12:07 a.m., the Alberta Liquor and Gaming Commission tweeted: "You like us! Our website is experiencing some heavy traffic. We are working hard to get it up and running."

Alberta and Quebec have set the minimum age for purchase at 18, while other provinces s have made it 19.

No stores will open in Ontario, which includes Toronto. The nation's most populous province is working on its regulations and doesn't expect stores to operate until spring.

But as reporter Chris Mavridis explained from Toronto, Ontario residents may order marijuana from a government website.

“You go through it like you would any ecommerce website. It asks you for your age to verify your age at the beginning. You can choose from 70 different strains of stuff. You can pick up to 30 grams – that’s like 90 joints – and it’s delivered to you by Canada Post in the mail,” he said.

Once the marijuana is delivered, a $5 fee and an ID are required.

The government has not yet released figures for how successful the website for orders have been, but Mavridis said all indications are that it is booming.

“The people that I’ve spoken to already within the government say there were a couple of points in the middle of the night where the website crashed – not for very long; it was mostly just people who were curious to see what the website was. But their sales started at 12:01 and have continued straight through,” he said.

Owram explained that the promise for full legalization of marijuana comes from a campaign promise from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“(He) actually made this vote five years ago, back when he was liberal leader; not yet prime minster. He saw a sign at a campaign rally that was calling for decriminalization, and he pointed that out and basically said: ‘You know what? I want to go further than that. I don’t want to just decriminalize. I want to fully legalize and tax and regulate.’ So that was his stance at the time,” Owram said.

For revenue collection purposes, every province gets to choose what level of excise tax it puts on the product.

“Some companies, though, have said they’re going to offset the tax entirely by covering that price for consumers – particularly who are buying the product for medical reasons. So it’ll depend province to province, but most provincial governors are expecting to get a significant amount of tax revenue from this,” Owram said.

A patchwork of regulations has also spread in Canada as each province takes its own approach within the framework established by the federal government. Some provinces have government-run stores, others allow private retailers, and some have both.

Canada's national approach allows unfettered banking for the pot industry, inter-province shipments of cannabis and billions of dollars in investment — a sharp contrast with prohibitions in the United States, where nine states have legalized recreational sales of pot and more than 30 have approved medical marijuana.

Bruce Linton, CEO of marijuana producer and retailer Canopy Growth, claims he made the first sale in Canada — less than a second after midnight in Newfoundland.

"It was extremely emotional," he said. "Several people who work for us have been working on this for their entire adult life and several of them were in tears."

Linton is proud that Canada is now at the forefront of the burgeoning industry.

"The last time Canada was this far ahead in anything, Alexander Graham Bell made a phone call," said Linton, whose company recently received an investment of $4 billion from Constellation Brands, whose holdings include Corona beer and Robert Mondavi wines.

Before Wednesday, the only country with full marijuana legalization was Uruguay.

Canada has been watching states that have already legalized recreational marijuana in the U.S., and now, the U.S. on a national level is likely to monitor what’s happening in Canada.

“The U.S. on a national level is watching what Canada is doing, and a lot of executives of cannabis companies based in the U.S. are saying the Canadian experiment will ultimately be key to what’s happening south of the border – if it goes smoothly; if it demonstrates that there’s not a lot of risk to doing this, the U.S. might take a kinder view of full-out national legalization,” Owram said.

(© 2018 WCBS 880. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)