BY: MIROSLAV TOMOSKI
With the publication of the Canadian Government’s final report on the legalization of recreational Marijuana, legal weed is coming to Canada, and it’s bringing American tourists with it. Among other recommendations made by the Canadian government’s Task Force, the report suggested that the recreational consumption be made legal for those over the age of 18.
With legal pot on the horizon and the world’s longest unprotected border with the United States, Canadians could soon expect their neighbors to the south to flock to their country in search of a legal high. In Windsor, Ontario, Canada’s largest cannabis lounge, Higher Limits, is already welcoming medical license holders of any nationality. With the lounge located on North America’s busiest border crossing, co-owner Jon Liedtke believes that cannabis tourism is going to be one of the fastest growing industries, and he’s not the only one.
“There will most certainly be some instances of cannabis ‘tourism’ in the future, if Canada implements regulation, just as US jurisdictions like Colorado have already seen boosts in marijuana-related tourism.” Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), agrees.
According to a study commissioned by the Colorado Tourism Office, nearly half of the tourists surveyed said they came to Colorado for the weed. As for Higher Limits, they already accept American customers at least once a week, and its owners are excited about the future of the industry.
“We’re looking forward to what might happen under a legal framework when it happens.” Liedtke says, “you’re going to see a lot of Americans flocking over the border to take part in that just as what happens right now with alcohol.”
On weekends, the streets of Windsor are routinely crowded with Americans who come to take advantage of the country’s lower drinking age as well as the regions wineries.
But city counselors have recently implemented public smoking bylaws that appear to be aimed at limiting the visibility of the cannabis industry in the future. At a time when the rest of the country is preparing for legalization, these measures seem counter-productive. Liedtke calls this a “wait and see moment,” but with thousands of Americans crossing the border every week the momentum is clearly on their side.
Border cities across the country have been experiencing similar roadblocks that ignore the evolving legal reality. Even in places where recreational use is set to be legal on both sides, authorities are caught in the grey area of enforcing a legal framework which will soon be totally irrelevant.
Ted Gilliat, of Surrey British Columbia, experienced this grey area first hand when he was barred from entering the United States for admitting to having smoked years before he attempted to cross the border. At the time, Gilliat was crossing into Washington state, where recreational use of cannabis is legal. But since border crossings are under federal control, they are still subject to strict enforcement policies.
The incident prompted a response from Canada’s Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister, Ralph Goodale, who suggested that America ought to lighten up.
“I think we’ll be able to make the case effectively to the United States, that the regime that we’re putting in place in Canada at the national level will be more effective than the one they’ve got,” the Minister told reporters.
Until the law is finally changed, even Canadian officials are expected to enforce it. The Canada Border Services Agency has refused to comment on the potential effect Canadian legalization will have on the border, but Dr. Bill Anderson, Director of the Cross-Border Institute which works with both sides of the border to craft effective policy, believes that beneath the official statements and posturing, border officials would rather take a more relaxed approach to marijuana in particular.
“Officials don’t necessarily think this is the most useful thing to be doing,” He says, “The big issue is opioids. There’s a lot of cheap heroin around right now and it’s very difficult to detect things like fentanyl…but at the same time, they feel unless somebody tells them otherwise, it’s their job to be strict about marijuana.”
In the case of Windsor, border guards already seem to have taken a more relaxed approach according to Liedtke.
“We already have a secure border,” he says, “I’ve had to cross and I’ve admitted to growing medical marijuana plants and to having a medical marijuana license and I haven’t had a problem.”
But others like Windsor resident Jan Rieveley have said that they feel apprehensive about crossing the border. Medical cannabis is currently legal in the state of Michigan, but as with the case of Ted Gilliat, federal regulations have prevented her from bringing her medicine on trips to see her American family members.
If strict enforcement policies continue they could create some awkward encounters and major delays at the border, but the pressure caused by an increase in marijuana tourism could eventually cause a change in policy.
“If marijuana is going to be legal in Canada, maybe more people are going to smoke it, but also more people are going to say they smoked it.” Anderson says, suggesting that it may be a matter of where resources are focused in the future. “If people want to tell the truth and they’re going to get excluded, maybe you could put pressure on the border officials to not ask that question and I think they’d probably have some discretion over that.”
Border or not the government is going to find it increasingly difficult to control the economic impact of cannabis.
“Legislators on both sides of the border need to really start to think beyond the impact of just dried bud.” Liedtke says, “Because it’s not just about a dried bud, it could be about textiles it could be about fabrics, it could be about everything, it’s a disruptive product.”
In the state of California, which recently legalized recreational use, cannabis comes in just ahead of the wine industry as the state’s number one cash crop. Meanwhile in Colorado, the government reported over $85 million in tax revenue, suggesting that the industry is already too big to ignore.
“Americans’ real-world experience reveals that state and local governments can regulate cannabis in a manner that keeps cannabis out of the hands of children while simultaneously satisfying the seller, the adult consumer and the taxman — and the sky won’t fall.” Armentano says, believing that legalization is the best approach to safe consumption and public benefit. “Ideally, the forthcoming policy changes in Canada may embolden campaigning politicians in this country to take a more pronounced stance in favor of legalizing and regulating cannabis.”
In addition to its economic effect, public opinion seems to have shifted in favor of legalization. According to a study conducted by PEW Research, 57 percent of Americans believe marijuana should be legal for recreational use, but among lawmakers in the US, only four percent support a change in policy.
“It always amazes me how little what’s going on in Canada affects American politics.” Says Anderson, comparing legalization to the American healthcare debate, which has raged on in the face of a public system that has existed in Canada since 1984.
Liedkie, on the other hand, is a little more optimistic, “[W]e’ve reached the halfway point there, and I think that that’s going to be what eventually pushes the US toward embracing legalization within the next eight to sixteen years, but who knows maybe they’re going to have a flash forward point like we did here in Canada. I never thought – even if Trudeau got elected – that we’d be looking at legalization on this fast of a timeline.”