OTTAWA—It is not a drill. When legal cannabis hits the shelves in Canada on Wednesday, it will be there to stay.
Come next year’s federal election, no party will be committing to turn back the clock on Justin Trudeau’s signature policy; not even the Conservatives who spent the last campaign painting nightmare scenarios about the legal sale of marijuana and who would have no qualms about doing away with other major parts of the Liberal legacy.
If Andrew Scheer became prime minister, he would waste no time in dismantling the Liberal climate change infrastructure. A Conservative federal government would turn its back on carbon pricing and lighten the regulatory burden on pipeline owners.
It would reverse the bid to make the Senate more independent and resume appointing partisan members committed to supporting the government agenda to the Upper House.
But Scheer would not kill the nascent legal cannabis market..
It would of course be hard for the Conservatives to continue to prosecute the legalization of cannabis with a minimum of credibility when some of those who toiled on their front bench or in their government’s backrooms have now become poster people for the cannabis industry.
Given the significant amount of money and labour that has gone into the opening and the operation of this new market, this was never a policy that could or would be reversed on a dime.
When the Liberals first adopted a resolution in support of the legalization of cannabis at the party’s 2012 convention, few believed it had the potential to become a fait accompli a mere half-a-dozen years later.
The party was leaderless and languishing in third place in the House of Commons. The best some Liberal strategists could think of saying about the cannabis resolution was that it sent a signal that there was still some policy life on their political planet. The worst was that it could lead scores of voters to dismiss their party as too irresponsible to be returned to government.
Yet support for the legalization of marijuana among the Liberal delegates cut right across the age spectrum. That was a rare clue that the proposal might turn out to be more than a one-convention wonder.
Over the past few years, there has been a lot of talk about the need for governments to acquire a so-called social licence for the projects and the policies they support.
But in the case of the legalization of cannabis — as in that of assisted dying — the federal government of the day did not so much create the circumstances for social acceptability as take advantage of its existence.
An Abacus poll published on Monday reported little public resistance to the new status of cannabis. Most Canadians will not be dancing in the streets when marijuana stores open for business on Wednesday, nor will they be rushing to the barricades to protest.
I was 14 when I first realized how readily available cannabis was. The fact that it was an illegal substance did not factor in my decision to take a pass on trying it. By all accounts, my experience is par for the course for most adult Canadians.
It won’t be easier to purchase cannabis under the new regime; at first in fact it will often be harder. The main change is that it will no longer be illegal. And as a result, scores of people, many of them young, will no longer risk being saddled with a criminal record. Over time, smoking weed may become as uncool as smoking tobacco.
That is not to say that the politics of marijuana will fall right off the radar. But much of the action — at least over the first few years — will be taking place in the provinces.
As it is now configured, the legal cannabis market is really a patchwork system featuring almost as many approaches as there are provinces.
That is not necessarily a bad thing. At some point, best practices will surface and — in an ideal world — be replicated.
For instance, Quebec — under its incoming CAQ government — is planning to take as close to a prohibitionist approach as possible. Premier-elect François Legault would raise the legal age to buy cannabis from 18 to 21 and make it illegal to smoke weed in public places. Ontario is taking a more liberal approach.
The next few years will tell which of the two comes closest to meeting the policy objectives of eradicating the black market and ensuring that less cannabis finds its way into the hands of Canadian teenagers.
But under any scenario, getting an informed take on the big post-legalization picture will take longer than the 10 or so months between now and the next federal election.
Chantal Hébert is a columnist based in Ottawa covering politics. Follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert