NOTE: this article appeared as a column in the Michigan Cannabis Industries Report’s November 2018 issue.
The Other Side of the River
The Canadian method of national cannabis legalization might work here
from the monthly column, “Detroit Watch” by Larry Gabriel
As of October 17 recreational marijuana became legal in Canada, the first major industrial country to do so. That’s right across the river or the lake for anyone living in eastern or Upper Peninsula Michigan.
We’re talking five minutes across the bridge or tunnel from downtown Detroit.
The proximity of legal recreational marijuana across the entire northern border of the United States is going to put even more pressure to legalize on our side. That was the case during the days of alcohol Prohibition. Back then there were spots along Detroit’s riverfront with tunnel entrances to bring the booze from Canada in to Detroit speakeasies.
That’s probably not going to happen today, but there will be a certain amount of cross border activities. For instance, in southeast Michigan there is a long tradition of crossing the border to take advantage of the lower drinking age in Ontario, as well as casinos and strip joints. The legal drinking age there is 19, while Michigan’s is 21. By the same token there is nothing to stop youngsters from going to Canada to get a head start on legal marijuana either.
The Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marihuana Act that we voted about on Nov. 6 set the legal marijuana use age at 21. And that is the age set everywhere in the United States that has legalized marijuana. In Canada, each province has its own set of regulations about marijuana including setting the age of use. All provinces set the age at 19 except Alberta and Quebec which set it at 18.
Other provincial differences pop up in the amount of plants citizens can grow. Most provinces allow up to four plants per household although Quebec and Manitoba don’t allow any self-grows, while the folks in Nunavut are still thinking about it.
However it all shakes down the world is watching on this one. Canada is the second country to legalize, along with Uruguay, and the G7 country to do so. A statement from Hannah Hetzer, Senior International Policy Manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that was active in Michigan with the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, on legalization in Canada day pointed to international ramifications of the policy.
“The legalization of marijuana in Canada, and the likely changes we will see on drug policy in Mexico under its new government, make the United States federal government’s prohibition on marijuana even more untenable. It’s long past time for Congress and the Administration to take action on this issue.”
The Canadian experience could be instructive to us as we head down a similar road here in the States. Their legalization came through government legislation. In 2015 Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau ran on a platform that included marijuana legalization. After winning he quickly instructed his government to come up with the legislation for legalization.
Legalization here is coming mostly in spite of the government. Our state by state legalization process has more of a resemblance to the Canadian march toward a national healthcare system. In Canada, after provinces one by one began setting up their own health care systems the federal government decided to go ahead and set up a national system.
So far Vermont is the only state that has legalized by legislation. If we see more states going that route it will mean that politicians are giving in to the inevitable and the pressure on Washington will probably be irresistible.
Obviously we’re not doing this by national legislation yet — and there’s no guarantee that a state-by-state approach will end in federal legalization. That’s the pall the hangs over marijuana legalization. The caveat that it’s still federally illegal gives cover to prohibitionists who won’t give up.
It’s also the pall that hangs over marijuana businesses in Michigan. Taking a chance and investing in a new business is tough enough. Add to that constantly having to worry about the feds coming in with a drug charge and it’s a deterrent to enterprise. Even without federal charges added, a shutdown could be economically devastating. In Detroit a nearly 200 dispensaries were reportedly shut down when city zoning regulations were put in place. Many of these owners put tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars into their locations.
After near a decade reporting on medical marijuana in Michigan I can tell you that fear runs deep even now among business owners. Even places that look like they are all clear and running well. Business owners by and large don’t want to be quoted in news articles and they certainly don’t want to be quoted saying anything controversial about state regulators who decide where licenses are going.
Until we get to full federal legalization business owners in Michigan will not feel fully secure. In the meantime, on this side of the border a fledgling industry is being constructed on a shaky foundation. On the other side of the Detroit River things are looking pretty solid for cannabis.
Larry Gabriel is a Detroit-based journalist who has been editor of the Metro Times, UAW Solidarity magazine and the American Cultivator, as well as an editor and writer for the Detroit Free Press. Gabriel has won several awards from the Michigan Press Association and Association of Alternative Newsmedia.