Legalization of recreational weed unlikely to kill pot black market right away

TORONTO — From texting a local dealer to dropping into a neighbourhood dispensary or ordering online, Canada’s black market for recreational marijuana has seen significant changes in recent years and, no doubt, will see more as the country hurtles toward a new world of legalization next summer.

What does seem clear, however, is that the illegal market is unlikely to disappear in a puff of smoke come legalization day.

“There’s a huge, complex system out there operating in the world that has been delivering excellent product to people at reasonable prices for 40 years now,” says Donald MacPherson, the executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, an organization based out of Simon Fraser University that advocates for evidence-based policy-making and harm-reduction strategies.

“It’s really the degree to which the regulated system can, over a period of years, encroach on as much of that pre-existing market as possible — that is the key question.”

Talking to users quickly reveals three major strands that make up the current system, starting with the traditional approach: knowing a guy who knows a guy who gets you your pot. It’s familiar, it’s trusted, it feels safe.

More recently, street-level dispensaries have offered a somewhat normal retail store-front experience, though some offer only delivery, but perhaps the biggest change has been in what appears to be a very Canadian phenomenon: the burst of website-based mail-order marijuana suppliers, or MOMs as they are known.

A plethora of websites now feature different cannabis products along with prices and, in some cases, testimonials, contests, specials, and freebies. Most ask for proof of age in the form of an uploaded ID document — 18 or 19 is generally minimum — and payment takes place via Interac. The vacuum-packed product is shipped to the buyer via Canada Post or courier.

Francois, 34, an IT professional in Quebec City, says he now buys exclusively online.

“The convenience factor is what brought me there,” says Francois, who like other users interviewed for this article only wants his first name used. “It’s delivered to your doorstep. It’s super easy, it’s super discreet.”

Marie-Helene, 26, a journalist in Montreal who smokes recreationally most evenings and weekends, says she doesn’t expect much will change for her post legalization. She plans to stick with buying from a guy she knows who sells medical grade weed. She trusts him, she says, and she enjoys the personal touch — he knows what strains she likes — and what she calls their “professional-business relationship.”

“It doesn’t feel super shady,” she says. “It probably sounds silly (but) it’s the same thing as people who enjoy buying stuff in stores — because it’s customer experience.”

Robert, 55, an IT professional based in St. Catharines, Ont., a recreational user for decades, says he now has a medical prescription and can avoid a black market he believes was tied to organized crime. The illegal market is doomed over time, he says, because every gram sold legally is a gram the black market won’t need to grow.

“Most of my friends can’t wait to purchase legally and are quite jealous that I am currently able to do that,” Robert says. “Friends who have more libertarian leanings swear they will never buy from the Ontario government (but) I bet that changes. People are lazy and follow the path of least resistance, so if they can buy a couple grams in the same shopping plaza that they are grocery shopping, they are going to do that.”

Statistics Canada data indicate about 12 per cent of Canadians aged 15 and older — or 3.6 million of us — reported in 2015 having used cannabis in the previous year, with 840,000 saying they used it most every day.

Robert, however, says he thinks governments have hugely underestimated the prevalence of use and the Ontario government’s plan, for example, to start out with 40 retail outlets is laughable.

“People don’t honestly answer surveys about sex and drugs, so nobody really understands how big the market will be,” Robert says. “I predict massive lines for legal weed next year.”

Whether the black market shrinks and how quickly, observers say, will depend on what the legal market ends up looking like. It’s far from clear. Each province is charting its own course, with some tending toward maximum restrictions in terms of retail outlets, while others talk of stiff criminal sanctions for selling product to underage buyers or near schools.

“These new laws are going to make the black market thrive,” says Chad, 40, who produces edible cannabis products in Toronto. “The black market is really vast. It’s really huge, right now, the competition.”

The advent of dispensaries, he says, forced the black market to up its game in terms of quality and price. While the recent police crackdown on storefronts in Toronto has just pushed them underground, it has not dented what is a plentiful supply, he says. What Chad does believe is that many online sellers will go dark post-legalization.

“Being online is just a way to get caught,” he says.

The challenge facing federal and provincial governments, says MacPherson of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, is the fact that the current system is so large, diverse and filled with expertise — in other words, it is mature.

Across Canada, hundreds if not thousands of small-scale growers along with some large grow-ops supply a seemingly ravenous consumer cohort that includes younger Canadians who have some of the highest usage rates in the world, according to various surveys.

Canada’s police services, however, have expressed concern they won’t be ready to enforce the new laws by next summer. They told a Commons committee earlier this year that among other things, they would need more time to train officers and increase the ranks of those certified to do roadside drug-impaired driving testing.

OPP Deputy Commissioner Rick Barnum warned that organized crime will flourish.

“Policing will not be ready to go Aug. 1,” Barnum told the committee. ”The damage that can be done between the time of new legislation and police officers ready to enforce the law in six months or a year can make it very, very hard to ever regain that foothold.”

Enforcement is unlikely to make the illegal market go away, MacPherson says, but legalization does afford governments an opportunity to deploy policing resources elsewhere, and to make reliable public health information readily available as cannabis use becomes normalized in the way a glass of wine or beer already is.

Most importantly, he says, displacing well entrenched networks now used for selling and buying good quality pot from people users know will require hassle-free access.

“It’s a really interesting and complex thing that the government is trying to do,” MacPherson says. “It’s trying to take a very robust, complex pre-existing market and basically put it out of business by coming up with a better robust market.”

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