By LES PERREAUX
Thursday, October 18, 2018
MONTREAL -- People lined up by the thousands outside the country's cannabis shops and emerged one by one after a few minutes inside, many clutching receipts and little brown shopping bags that testified to a routine retail transaction that was illegal just 24 hours earlier.
The first day of legalization on Wednesday put Canada on the global stage as it became the first country in the Group of Seven and only the second in the world, after Uruguay, to allow recreational cannabis sale and use. But the occasion played out in tens of thousands of individual transactions that marked a new frontier in personal liberty.
"This is a testament to the Canadian spirit. I feel a sense of pride that we're ahead of the U.S. on this," said Kay Nguyen, a university sociology student, outside Montreal's downtown province-run cannabis store where customers lined up for four hours. "It shows that Canadians are open-minded people."
However, there remain some difficult questions as the drug enters the legal realm. Online and retail stores quickly ran short of product, illustrating the struggle suppliers, retailers and policymakers face to balance supply and demand, satisfy users and drive out criminal suppliers without boosting consumption. Federal politicians debated expunging criminal records for cannabis users, while U.S. border officials warned that simple pardons won't automatically allow people into the country.
And it's not clear how turning cannabis mainstream with store lineups, pot parties and a professional retail service will help reduce consumption among the young - a principle aim of the Trudeau government.
Ripples in the festive atmosphere played out across the country: In Vancouver, loud arguments erupted between those who think the new liberalized cannabis regime goes too far and those who think it doesn't go far enough. In Regina, several marijuanastore owners are fighting criminal cases that originated when cannabis was illegal and will not be dropped now that it isn't. In Quebec City, a fist fight broke out over cutting in line. And in Toronto and the rest of Ontario, only online sales are legally available until the spring.
The long lineups in other parts of the country drew the curious stares of passersby. Not everyone was enthusiastic about the new era of legal cannabis.
"It scares me because I think it will make [cannabis] seem banal to young people," Michelle L'Ecuyer, 62, from suburban Montreal, said as she watched the scene. "It's not banal." She worries that legalization will make the drug more easily accessible to youth, causing possible addiction or mental-health problems. And she fears that the legal product could be resold by buyers to under-age teens.
In Ottawa, Conservative Opposition member Gérald Deltell dressed in black to mark what he described as "not a good day for Canada."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal government was elected almost exactly three years ago in part on a promise to legalize cannabis. A framework for legalization was tabled 22 months ago and a new law passed in June. An original planned date of July 1 was pushed back amid complaints from the provinces that they weren't ready. Critics continue to decry the patchwork of rules from one province and municipality to another, along with what they call the haste of liberalization.
The Federal Health Minister said that, in the long run, legalization will be judged by its impact on children and youth. "My priority is ensuring that rates of consumption among youth go down. Ultimately, that will be how we define success," Ginette Petitpas Taylor told reporters.
But the day was more festive than argumentative or preoccupied with the issues of the days and weeks ahead.
At the main campus of the University of British Columbia, dozens of students marked legalization by smoking up on a hill beside the student centre complex.
Ricardo Zatz, 20, a business student who says marijuana helps him with sleeplessness and socializing, said the pressure is off now in using cannabis because he will know the product is not tainted. "I know what I am smoking is actual marijuana and nothing has been laced into it," he said."That just makes me feel more comfortable and safer."
Hundreds of Calgarians lined up in a party-like atmosphere outside of two cannabis stores open in Alberta's largest city. Alberta licensed 17 private stores to open on Day 1, the most of any province.
At least 80 more stores are expected to open over the next month.
After a two-hour wait to get into the Four20 cannabis market, a grinning Ryan Gill walked out with several bags filled with dried cannabis and prerolled joints. "This was a great experience. It should have happened years ago," he said. "There's no stigma any more."
Matthew Dahl and Reed Tomlinson lined up for three hours to be the first and second customers of Delta9's first retail location in Winnipeg. They were greeted by a loud cheer from a crowd of 200 as they exited. Tokyo Smoke and Tweed locations drew smaller but no less excited lineups of 100 or so each.
The estimated 30- to 45-minute wait was accompanied by strumming buskers and local café staff slinging coffee and snacks.
In Dartmouth, N.S., Karine Cameron had no problem spending half an hour waiting to buy cannabis for the first time. She tends to smoke joints at night to unwind but has never purchased marijuana herself. "It's something I like to enjoy at the end of a day," she said, adding: "My husband used to be the one who purchased it. It's nice to be able to do it on your own."
Emergency and medical services reported no cannabis-related incidents by early evening. BC Emergency Health Services usually assembles a special-operations crew to monitor medical emergencies related to cannabis for annual 4/ 20 celebrations, when tens of thousands of people gather in Vancouver to smoke up. The agency, which has been dealing with an opioid crisis that killed 972 people in the first eight months of the year, did not feel the need to mobilize for legalization day.
"The thing about cannabis is that of all the mind-altering agents available, this one is not a huge generator of 911 emergency calls," said Joe Acker, BCEHS's director of clinical practice.
"Personally, I have rarely responded as a paramedic to sick patients from cannabis use."
With reporting from Andrea Woo, Mike Hager, Sunny Dhillon and Ian Bailey in Vancouver; Justin Giovannetti and Allan Maki in Calgary; Michael Pereira in Winnipeg, Victoria Gibson in Toronto; Daniel Leblanc in Ottawa; Ingrid Peritz in Montreal and Jessica Leeder in Halifax.