Chapter 56: Marijuana Revisited

Is the country finally going to pot? Here’s hoping.

This past July, just about 10 years ago, I got an interesting phone call from a politician at the highest level of the Paul Martin government then in charge in Ottawa, who also happened to be a good and personal friend of mine. He knew where I stood on certain social issues and had a question for me. “Moses,” he asked, “the Party has decided it can’t do both: legalize marijuana or legalize same-sex marriage. Which one should it be?”

Without a second’s hesitation, I said, marijuana. I supported same-sex marriage wholeheartedly but first, I told my pal, the government would impact many more people with the marijuana move. Second, because of the thousands who were still being charged and harassed and jailed for small amounts of marijuana possession, the negative consequences of marijuana use were far more dire than the downside of being denied legal same-sex marriage. Finally, I said, we’re talking big money into public coffers for all manner of good works if we legalize and tax instead of handing a multi-billion dollar tax-free industry to the Hell’s Angels.

I also had had personal experience with the non-recreational benefits of marijuana. When an old knee injury from my squash playing days flared up enough to interfere with my sleep, my doctor prescribed a new highly touted anti-inflammatory. Three months later I woke up to a headline in the morning paper that read: “Vioxx [which hadn’t helped my pain at all] can kill you.” In the meantime, I knew that a puff or two was enough to take the top off my discomfort and let me sleep. So the synthetic pharmaceutical that didn’t work and could kill me was legal, while the natural herb that worked and wouldn’t kill me was illegal. As a result, I became involved in the medical marijuana cause and an advocate for legalization in general. Which is why I repeated my choice to my politician friend. “Marijuana,” I said again. “That’s my advice.”

Of course, the Liberals chose same-sex marriage, and the rest is history. At once, Canada became one of the most advanced countries in the world in terms of recognition of alternative lifestyles and one of the most conflicted in the realm of marijuana. When a third controversial social issue came recently to the fore, Assistance in Dying, the country initially dithered the same way it did with cannabis, with naysayers applying the same sorts of slippery-slope objections to legalization. This past spring, I revisited assisted suicide to see whether the dire warnings of its opponents had been borne out in Washington State and Oregon where the practice had become legalized and regulated. They hadn’t and, shortly after my column appeared, the Supreme Court of Canada threw out the federal law proscribing physician-assisted suicide, opening the door to its legalization here, too. So now seems like the perfect time to revisit the marijuana issue: to consider the Canadian status quo, particularly with medical marijuana; to check back on the American experience so far; and to ask that exasperating question again – why is it that this natural plant, which should be so much less of a hot button than same-sex marriage or assisted suicide, still remains the taboo of taboos?

It was back in the year 2000 that the Supreme Court ruled that Canadians had a constitutional right to use cannabis as a medicine and required Health Canada to make medical marijuana available to the general public. At that point, Health Canada appointed a single provider, Prairie Plant Systems (which was owned in part by a company called Cannasat, of which – full disclosure – I was chairman for a while). The conditions imposed by Health Canada were stringent and self-defeating. For one, they insisted on extremely low levels of THC in the product. The ineffective ground-up and mulched-down result ended up earning Health Canada a terrible reputation as a cannabis provider. I remember saying “They’re going to go down in history as the only people who couldn’t give marijuana away.”

Eventually, Health Canada increased the permissible THC levels to the point where the product became somewhat effective. The problem then became how difficult it was for a patient to actually purchase it. Complicated forms had to be filled out, and you needed a prescription from a doctor which, at the time, the colleges governing doctors were reluctant to let them provide, citing lack of qualified research and fear of the law.

Today, more doctors are willing to write prescriptions, but a bottleneck remains. The biggest difference is the increase in the number of medical marijuana providers Health Canada has licensed; from one to close to two dozen today, located in all parts of the country with, apparently, more to come. But there’s a caveat. In the previous single legal provider regime, a person who had a doctor’s endorsement could also grow a limited number of his own plants or get someone else with a green thumb to grow for her. In the new multi-provider system, individuals are not allowed to grow their own. This attempted restriction led immediately to a lawsuit, which is now wending its way through the courts. Medical marijuana users who grow their own argue that they’re being forced to forsake a reliable low-cost option (growing the strain that works for them for pennies a gram) to buy unknown product from a provider who is charging $7 and $10 a gram. For people on a fixed income or with a disability, the financial squeeze can be untenable.

It appears to be the euphoria component in marijuana that the government fears the most. In a country where, since 2003, a majority of citizens have consistently said they favour legalization and see marijuana as less harmful than alcohol, their government is bizarrely opposed. The stance seems to be: “If you’re really, really sick and you can prove to us that nothing else works, then with great reluctance and after making you jump through hoops, we will let you have the medicine that works for you. But, should you, God forbid, enjoy yourself in the process, we’ll throw you in jail!” That, excuse me, is one screwed-up mindset. It’s also inaccurate. Not only has THC been shown in several studies to have its own therapeutic benefits but, as any chronic-pain sufferer knows, distraction is a treatment in itself. Euphoria can be part of the cure. If you’re in intractable pain, if you’re experiencing constant nausea, if you’re grinding your way through a round of cancer treatment and there is a substance that with just a few inhalations (or sips or chews or swallows) can get your mind off the pain and give you relief even briefly, why should our laws begrudge that?

No one knows better how much hogwash there is in the frequently hysterical propaganda spread about marijuana than the generation of whom it has been said, tongue-in-cheek, that they “invented” marijuana: baby boomers.

Baby boomers know that it’s possible to smoke a joint, have an insight or a laugh, get the munchies and not end up in the gutter or engaged in a life of crime. Boomers are also the people – increasingly prone as they are to aches and pains – who are most open to the idea of using marijuana as medicine.

And if the government won’t take it from boomers, let them take it from the Americans. On Jan. 1, 2014, the sale of personal-use marijuana for adults 21 and older was fully legalized in the state of Colorado. Six months later, the overall crime rate in Colorado was down 10.1 per cent from the previous year, violent crime down 5.2 per cent. (The prevailing explanation is that police no longer tasked with arresting pot-smokers and sellers had more time to deal with serious crime.) On St. Patrick’s Day in 2014, Colorado police charged 450 people with driving under the influence of alcohol, three with driving under influence of cannabis. In the first half of the year, Colorado’s marijuana industry generated $20 million in state taxes and fees, with the projected figure for year-end between $60 and $100 million. Tourism was up in the state, and 10,000 people were employed in its 2,000 licenced marijuana stores.

This past summer, I visited one such store, not in Colorado but in Washington State, which legalized marijuana sale in November 2012. The shop was located in one of the “marijuana-designated” zones, on the outskirts of Seattle in a semi-industrial area next to a row of car lots. The parking was easy, the store was open late and was very well-lit, crisply clean and meticulously organized. The staff was young, pleasant and, above all, knowledgeable. The prices were stiff but not outlandish. It occurred to me it was like being in a hyper-normalized, small, upscale supermarket.

But something else occurs to me now. Maybe when my Liberal politician pal called to get my advice, he was using me as a reverse barometer. Maybe, knowing my talent for controversy, whichever way I said to go, he’d made up his mind to do the opposite. In that case, I’m the father of Canadian same-sex marriage.

I’ll take it.

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.