Anne McLellan doesn’t want to talk about pot, weed, or ganja — but ask her about cannabis and she’ll give you an earful. Not long after the government struck the Task Force on Marijuana Legislation in 2016, she and the other task force members opted to change the name to The Task Force on Cannabis Legislation.
“This is becoming a legal product that will be sold in whatever form across the country, and we as a task force felt it deserved its proper botanical name,” she says in a recent episode of The Well-Endowed Podcast (a production of the Edmonton Community Foundation). With a long list of reported therapeutic benefits, cannabis is “a very complex plant” with great potential, says McLellan.
As the chair of the Task Force on Cannabis Legislation, the former Liberal deputy prime minister has spent nearly two years studying all things cannabis-related in an effort to help the government roll out its new legislation this July. While medical marijuana has been legal since 2014, the full legalization and regulation of cannabis will be a watershed moment for Canada, she says: “This is transformative. No one alive today has seen what we are going to go through, because no one was alive during the end of the prohibition of alcohol.”
It’s been nearly a century since Canadian lawmakers made cannabis production and use illegal, driving the industry underground for decades. “The prohibition was put in place many years ago because people viewed cannabis as a dangerous narcotic,” she says. “They wanted to keep it out of the hands of everyone, but especially young people.” But the plan failed spectacularly, says McLellan, as Canada has one of the highest rates of cannabis use in the world.
Now that the moral panic has faded, many people actually consider cannabis to be less dangerous than alcohol — although the plant’s legal status has hindered research on the subject. Thanks to the new legislation, we will finally be able to study the health effects of cannabis, says McLellan: “We hope that with legalization and regulation, we will learn an awful lot more about the long-term effects, both good and bad.”
Canada's illegal cannabis market is worth at least $7 billion.
Legalization will also limit or eliminate the illegal cannabis market, worth at least $7 billion according to task force research, and replace it with a new, legal market. This will create plenty of opportunities for new cannabis businesses of all kinds, like retailers, wholesalers, producers, and others. Licensed producers who’ve been growing medicinal cannabis over the last few years will be able to take advantage of opportunities in Canada and abroad. “There are market opportunities for Canadian producers in countries where they’ve legalized cannabis for medicinal purposes,” says McLellan.
But creating a new, legal market isn’t as simple as rolling out the legislation, she warns. Even if the government proclaims the legislation in force this July — something that may not happen if the senate continues its debate of Bill C-45 — cannabis businesses won’t be ready to open their doors for weeks or months afterwards due to complex supply chain logistics. “It takes time to normalize a market where the subject matter of the market has been illegal for decades — almost 100 years,” says McLellan.
She predicts a big spike in cannabis use when the law comes into effect, but notes that the accessibility of product will depend on how the market develops. It’s possible that the industry may have an oversupply problem or face shortages of certain strains of cannabis, for instance. It’s hard to know how things will shake out, but McLellan expects plenty of surprises — advice given to her and the other taskforce members when they met with lawmakers in Colorado and Washington, where cannabis was legalized in recent years.
“We, especially in government, tend to overreact to situations,” says McLellan. “There will be issues, therefore we all need to understand that what is required here is flexibility, thoughtfulness, and nimbleness.”