Canada's Drift Toward Legalizing Pot Coming to a Halt?

Ted Kindos is no prude on the matter of mind-altering substances. As a bar owner in Burlington, Ont., he is a happy purveyor of the last legal narcotic, and it's safe to assume many patrons of Gator Ted's Tap & Grill also partake of the weed when they're not enjoying a pint.

Canada's Drift Toward Legalizing Pot Coming to a Halt?

Ted Kindos is no prude on the matter of mind-altering substances. As a bar owner in Burlington, Ont., he is a happy purveyor of the last legal narcotic, and it's safe to assume many patrons of Gator Ted's Tap & Grill also partake of the weed when they're not enjoying a pint. But few understand the value of limits better than a publican, and where marijuana is concerned, Kindos draws the line emphatically at the entrance to his establishment. Three years ago, a man insisted on smoking a joint while the lunchtime crowd sallied back and forth through the front doors, prompting Kindos to take swift action. "I got secretaries, schoolteachers, businessmen coming in and out of here," he says. "So I went out there and said, 'Hey, what are you thinking? Customers are asking me what kind of place I'm running.' I told him to get outta there."

Alas, upholding community standards is seldom so straightforward. It turned out the man, Steve Gibson, counts among 2,200 Canadians who are licensed to smoke medicinal marijuana, and a few weeks later, he filed a complaint against Kindos to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, claiming he needs his pot to relieve the pain of a neck injury. The case made headlines this spring as it went to a full tribunal, feeding an ongoing debate about the purview of rights commissions (since when was dope - medicinal or otherwise - a human right?). Lost in the uproar, though, was Kindos's basic point: for all the effort to decriminalize and normalize pot in Canadian society, average people still regard it with suspicion. Many of the letters, calls and emails of encouragement he received, he says, came from regular folks nowhere near to accepting cannabis as a presence in their daily lives. "I can speak for my customers in saying they wouldn't support my establishment if they had to be exposed to marijuana smoke," he says. "It's just not accepted in our society on the same level as alcohol, or even tobacco."

Increasingly, such qualms are carrying the day in the debate over pot's legal status, halting what until recently seemed the country's inevitable drift toward legalization. Whatever Canadians' pretension to being cool with marijuana, they remain deeply conflicted about its impact on society, polls show, and may even be souring on the idea of liberalization. Ask for their response to people using pot for recreational purposes and 63 per cent will say they accept it, notes Reginald Bibby, a University of Lethbridge professor who has monitored social trends since the mid-1970s. Yet more than half of that group will also say they disapprove of it, a figure that tends to get overlooked. Factor in the 37 per cent who both disapprove and don't accept it, and the total proportion who frown on pot stands at 71 per cent. In other words, Canada's overall attitude toward marijuana may not so much be one of openness as grudging acceptance: I can't stop you from smoking it, the message seems to be, but I'd rather you didn't.

Lately, this posture has emboldened those who wish to keep the drug in the CRIMINAL CODE, while frustrating advocates who thought the moment for pot liberalization had finally come. In 2005, the Liberals' decriminalization bill would have reduced the penalty for possession of less than 15 grams to a $150 ticket, from the existing maximum of six months in jail - no cosmic policy shift yet enough of a break with the past to signal a new philosophy. But the governing Conservatives dumped the bill after winning power in early 2006, and the Grits now show scant interest in reviving it, mindful perhaps of its low traction among the over-35 demographic, and surprised by opposition it met from legalization supporters (many felt the ticketing provision would make it too easy to punish casual users).

Meantime, a palpable distaste for the thriving cultivation industry has been rearing its head in communities throughout the country. Bylaws aimed at shutting down grow operations are now on the books in communities throughout B.C.'s Lower Mainland, some of which empower inspectors to enter, search and evacuate homes. A 2004 report that determined that the number of grow ops in Ontario had reached 15,000 prompted police and government officials to hold a summit on the issue, noting that residents were fed up with having these massive, hydro-sucking plantations in their midst. In March 2005, the murder of four RCMP officers near Mayerthorpe, Alta., showed how visceral anti-pot sentiment can get: news that the officers were guarding a recently busted, though modest, grow op run by the killer, James Rozko, unleashed a torrent of anger. "I blame not only the evil man who killed these four RCMP officers, but also our Liberal government in Ottawa," said a letter-writer to the Edmonton Journal. "Blood is on their hands."

The pushback has grown strong enough that some veterans of the legalization debate are taking a breather - at least until the pendulum swings back their way. "The opportunity seems to have been lost," says Alan Young, a law professor at Osgoode Hall who has represented medical marijuana users and challenged the constitutionality of Canada's pot laws. "It will resurface, because [criminalization] is an ignorant public policy. But one of the reasons things don't change is because people get tired of debating the same old story." Even Marc Emery, the self-proclaimed Prince of Pot, is in parry mode these days, urging rhetorical moderation among pro-pot activists, publicly supporting Kindos in his dispute with Gibson. "We in the cannabis community have to appear reasonable," says Emery, who is facing extradition for selling marijuana seeds to customers in the U.S. "When someone is petty, it reflects badly on the rest of us."

No single factor is responsible for Canadians' unease about dope. But concern about the drug's increasing potency is almost certainly playing a part. The familiar theory that today's pot is more powerful than the stuff our hippie parents smoked gained new life this summer when the Maryland-based National Institute on Drug Abuse issued results from its ongoing "Potency Monitoring Project," which measures the active ingredients in the nation's dope. The average amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in cannabis samples seized in drug raids across the United States reached an all-time high of 9.6 per cent last year, according to the study, more than double that of pot circa 1983; one sample contained a whopping 37.2 per cent. Pro-pot activists bridle at such numbers, noting that THC detection methods have improved since the monitoring project began. Still, even a rudimentary Internet search will turn up sites in which growers brag that they've ramped up THC levels to above 30 per cent through improved seed stock and hydroponic growing systems.

This, in turn, has fed into growing concern among parents - even those who take the occasional toke - about the danger of exposing kids to modern marijuana, says Mark Kleiman, a public policy expert at UCLA who studies drug abuse and crime control. "Pot doesn't have the same dependency risk that alcohol does, but it's not zero. If that dependency begins at 15 and ends at 18, there's a lot of schooling that gets missed, and some emotional learning that's hard to catch up on for a kid that spends that period stoned." Alcohol consumption raises identical concerns, Kleiman adds, but that may only reinforce arguments against legalizing cannabis: "As a practical matter in contemporary society, it's very hard to make something available to adults without making it available to teenagers."

Factor in the chance that gangs represent the main source of the stuff in many areas, he says, and attitudes grow even harder. If there's good news for Canada's drug libertarians, it's that insecurity and anger about pot has not yet translated into support for a crackdown on users. In a countrywide poll released last spring, 53 per cent of respondents said they supported legalization. That might suggest widespread acceptance of pot. Or it might mean those polled see legalization as the best way to cut out the mob and the bikers. Either way, politicians and users had best consider the signals carefully. Just because Canadians don't want tokers thrown in jail doesn't mean they want them on their doorsteps.


Maclean's August 25, 2008