Canada can look to Colorado for guidance on cannabis legalization

While Canada waits for cannabis legalization next year, many government officials are looking at other examples around the world to help set legislation

This was the focus of a panel hosted by the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy Wednesday afternoon at the Fairmont Palliser Hotel.

Among the speakers was Lewis Koski, former Director of the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division, and now the Senior Director at consultancy firm Freedman & Koski.

Cannabis was legalized back in 2012 in Colorado, but one thing we can learn from them is there will be some headaches that stick around.

“Banking continuing to be a challenge, there’s a lot of challenge around the agricultural component of all this, especially with respect to pesticides. And then we also have a number of challenges in terms of driving under the influence,” said Koski.

As there are many questions about legalization in Canada, there are also many concerns. People have expressed concern over a possible rise in impaired driving, kids getting easier access to cannabis, and overall usage rates skyrocketing.

First off when it comes to impaired driving, Koski reminds us that the science still needs to catch up.

“Traffic fatalities in the state of Colorado are up. And a big number of those fatalities, a higher number, has tested positive for THC in their system.”

THC is the psychoactive component in cannabis, but the issue is that it stays in your system long after sobering up.

“You can’t tell right now whether or not, even if they test positive for THC, whether or not it was the approximate cause of the crash,” said Koski.

On the subject of usage rates, once more the evidence from Colorado disputes many assumptions.

“We’ve seen everything has remained relatively stable since then. I think you can definitely expect some spikes in usage when you first legalize because there’s a curiosity factor that goes along with it. But, the usage rates — 14 per cent — is a high number for the number of people in the state of Colorado that used marijuana within the last 30 days,” Koski adds.

Also, while there are many similarities between the U.S. state and our province, there are differences.

Notably, online sales are not allowed in Colorado, while the internet marketplace will be controlled by the Government of Alberta.

But to take the step and make the plant available in private retail stores in the province may be an advantage.

“Where it makes sense to allow the private market to take on the retail component of that, because you want to make sure you have enough retail stores to be able to move the product that’s being produced. I think there’s an advantage to having the government do the cultivations because you can be a little bit more assured of the quality of the product, the safety of the product,” said Koski.

Private retail has lead to a reduction in the black market, as customers are shifting their buying habits.

“That doesn’t mean then that the criminal element is gone, they’re just shifting how they do business, and they were shipping it out of state rather than making sales within the state. That’s been answered with recent policy.”

Koski says with the reduced restrictions, we should see improvements on most of these fronts. Research will be done on roadside testing so driver impairment can be properly judged, and also health risks and benefits will be understood a lot better.

Other speakers at the panel were Lorian Hardcastle, Assistant Professor in the U of C’s Faculty of Law, and Rachel Moore, Vice President of Human Resources for Encana.

Hardcastle was asked about how law enforcement will grapple with legalization, while Moore focused on how cannabis use will be regulated within the business community.

On that subject, Moore said that employees cannot be fired for using cannabis, and under Canadian law their use must be accommodated unless it is a risk to the workplace.

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