Cannabis / Marijuana, Exclusive Interviews
Craig Jones: Post-Election Reflections on Cannabis
By Anthony Wile - November 08, 2015

Introduction: Craig Jones holds a PhD in political economy from Queen's University. Before coming to NORML Canada, he was Executive Director of the John Howard Society of Canada and before that he was a policy analyst in the faculty of Health Sciences at Queen's University in Kingston. He has been publishing, teaching and lecturing on drug and criminal justice policy since the late 1990s. He lives in Kingston with his travel-writer wife (Jo Matyas) and their Border Collie, Rigby. When not geeking out on policy, he plays and sings jazz, rock and folk music in various venues around eastern Ontario.

Anthony Wile: Hello, Craig. Thanks for speaking with us again. Last time we interviewed you was in May 2014 and a lot has certainly happened in Canada on the cannabis front since then. Tell us what you and NORML Canada have been mainly focused on.

Craig Jones: We put a lot of energy, time and talent into our "get out the vote" project – props to Paul Lewin and the Toronto Core Group for that! We harvested names and email addresses starting on April 20, 2015 (4.20) and at the Global Marijuana March in every major city in Canada. We gathered thousands of names in a database and added them to our newsletter – then we engaged in voter education at every opportunity.

The second thing we did – again, Paul Lewin's idea – was contact every candidate for Parliament and query them on their stance on cannabis legalization. All their responses were entered into an Excel Spreadsheet and published on our website so that ordinary citizens could see who supported reform, who endorsed the status quo and who refused to answer.

Also at the 4.20 and GMM we gave out 10,000 postcards – in every major city across Canada – addressed to the Prime Minister telling him that cannabis users across Canada were working to defeat his government. These proved so popular we had to print another several thousand.

Once the writ dropped, we sent our members a list of questions to ask at public events where candidates were appearing – questions intended to elicit straight answers. We also encouraged our members to work for Liberal Party candidates in their ridings, to go door-to-door or work the phones.

We felt that the popular vote in the previous two general elections – the lowest in Canadian history – spoke to a democratic deficit that we, as citizens with an impulse for reform, had to reverse. We reached out to our supporters via social media and our website and we organized events, mostly in Toronto, to encourage our supporters to vote – and to vote for the only party that promised legalization AND democratic renewal. And that was the Trudeau Liberals. And we won! We don't know, of course, how many of our supporters across the country voted for the NDP or Greens, but all's well that ends well and a Trudeau majority is a happy outcome for NORML Canada.

The second thing we've put a lot of energy into is crafting a post-prohibition regime that respects the rights of individuals to possess and use cannabis, and to grow their own while creating a barrier to access by children. We're in the final stages of nailing down a policy paper to define our position so that when deliberations begin in earnest we are seen as the people who have given this the most thought and are closest to the international evidence and best practices.

As executive director I'm very proud of the ideas and energy that flowed from our volunteers. They worked hard, they worked creatively and they worked on the basis of principle and in defense of human rights.

By the way, this just happened in Mexico: "The 4-1 vote by the [Supreme] court's criminal chamber declared that individuals should have the right to grow and distribute marijuana for their personal use. While the ruling does not strike down current drug laws, it lays the groundwork for a wave of legal actions that could ultimately rewrite them, proponents of legalization say."

Anthony Wile: For readers who may not be aware of Canada's recent national election results, please tell us what the majority win by the Liberal Party and Justin Trudeau as prime minister means for the future of cannabis legalization.

Craig Jones: If they follow through as promised, it means the end of cannabis prohibition, which has two major implications: (a) the end of thousands of criminal records for cannabis possession – long understood to be more harmful than the use of cannabis itself; and (b) the realization of a "peace dividend" for Canadian taxpayers resulting from the reduced use of the criminal justice system.

This "peace dividend" is calculable although I can't give you a figure. But it costs many thousands of dollars – end to end – to prosecute a cannabis offender, most of which is borne by the federal government, which, under the constitution, controls the Criminal Code and runs the Prosecution Service.

The former – the end of thousands of criminal records – is incalculable. In 2010 some 20,000 young people acquired a criminal record for cannabis possession – an event which alters their life course, seldom for the better. And the burden of all this criminalization tends to fall on the inner-city and minority kids, and kids in the far north on reservations – not on the white, affluent, middle-class kids who cluster around Queen's University where I live in Kingston. So there has always been a pronounced class and racial bias in cannabis prohibition and legalization means the end of that, and the benefit of that is incalculable.

We will also be pressing for a reassessment of persons with a cannabis-related criminal record, looking toward having those struck from the records. This is but one part of a much larger project of reversing and undoing the harm inflicted on our criminal justice system by prohibition and latterly by the Harper government.

Those are the big short- to long-term consequences.

The legalization of cannabis also means that people will be free to experiment with various strains for therapeutic purposes, seeking out the perfect blend of THC and CBD to address a wide spectrum of neuropathic symptoms. I expect we will see the price plummet and we'll be able to employ cannabis – as it was for thousands of years – trans-dermally for conditions like arthritis and chronic pain. People's imagination will be liberated and all kinds of therapeutic potential will be unleashed.

A non-toxic, easily tolerated analgesic for non-malignant chronic pain is the holy grail of primary care medicine – and I think that analgesic could be cannabis.

I don't expect that we'll see a major impact on organized crime because I think they have moved on to other substances and activities long ago. Cannabis is smelly and bulky and not very profitable compared to heroin, crack or meth. Once people are able to grow their own strains – in their basements, balconies or backyards – and purchase through vendors (model yet to be determined) I think we'll realize that most current cannabis production is not controlled by organized crime. So I don't predict a big decline in organized crime as a result of cannabis legalization.

Nor do I expect to see a big fall-off in youthful access to cannabis. Currently, young people get cannabis from the kid in the next locker who gets it from their older brother or sister – not from a shadowy figure in a trench coat hovering on the margin of the school yard (one of many lies propagated by prohibitionists). The Internet has democratized the knowledge of how to grow and prepare high potency cannabis, and – to be honest – kids like it.

As to revenues from cannabis taxation, too early to know. I've seen projections based on comparable jurisdictions but I don't know how many Canadians will choose to produce their own and gift it to friends. Cannabis is an inherently social substance – always has been – so all projections should be treated with caution.

What I would like to see is the recycling of cannabis revenues into education, research, delaying initiation of youth, harm reduction and treatment for those who need it. This reflects my public health preferences and is not NORML's official policy stance.

Driving under the influence of cannabis: I doubt that we'll see a spike in accidents related to this kind of impairment and I hope I'm right. There will be a period of "normalization" during which time people will have to learn what impairment means and how cannabis interacts with other drugs including alcohol, fatigue and other forms of distraction. I suspect that people who would drive under the influence of cannabis under a legal regime are already doing so. The evidence is mixed on this: some people slow down to compensate for their impaired reaction times. That creates its own problems, of course, so I guess the honest answer is "too soon to know." This is going to be one area of intense learning from other jurisdictions – particularly in the United States. We should be open to the lessons because we've made a lot of progress reducing the impact of alcohol on driving.

What's going to be challenging for law enforcement is that people who use medicinally will have a higher blood-cannabis level but will not display traditional signs of impairment because they've acquired a tolerance and have learned to safely incorporate cannabis into their lives and routines.

Anthony Wile: Trudeau stated during his campaign that the Liberal Party was prepared to begin legalization efforts right away, then projected between 2 months and 2 years for new regulation to be put in place. What's your sense of those comments? Is 2 months or 2 years more realistic?

Craig Jones: If he's smart, he will move quickly – starting before the throne speech – and begin taxing consumption as soon as possible. That way he will (a) have worked out all the bugs in the regime by the next election; and, (b) have some windfall to splash around for socially progressive purposes.

To be realistic, I expect him to do "the Canadian thing" and deliberate. But it need not be too lengthy because we are unlikely to learn anything new about how to best regulate cannabis that Le Dain or Nolin did not alert us to. We know how to regulate psychotropic substances: we've already done the hard learning with alcohol and tobacco. Cannabis is different in some respects, but we don't have to re-invent the wheel.

The more important thing is to immediately end the prosecution of cannabis users and possessors – to staunch the bleeding and begin enjoying the peace dividend.

I also hope that Trudeau will open up a conversation on what to do with all other currently illicit drugs – because prohibition has worked as well for them as it has for cannabis. It's important to get cannabis off the table – with legalization – because cannabis is such a big part of the whole equation, but we can't stop with cannabis because drugs like cocaine, crack, heroin and meth are so much more harmful to their users under prohibition than they would be under a re-regulated regime.

Anthony Wile: Can you share some numbers with us on the extent of the effects of prohibition in Canada? For instance, how many are now involved in the country's legal system, including in prisons or on parole, for non-violent drug arrests?

Craig Jones: Numbers, no. Cannabis is often bundled in with other charges. I don't know if anyone captures those numbers or breaks them out in that way. I know it must be many thousands given that cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug in the country, but I cannot lay my hands on those numbers.

Anthony Wile: Can you give us a sense of the economic costs of prohibition in Canada?

Craig Jones: It's very hard to find reliable numbers because, frankly, no one who has capacity to know has an interest in actually knowing. There are real accounting problems – What do you count? How you do value it? – but there are political problems, too: do police agencies really want citizens to comprehend how much of their annual budget is wasted on cannabis prosecutions? If you were a police manager, would you want citizens to have that information? Wouldn't you be concerned that someone is going to ask, "Say, what are we getting for this?"

I've never seen an accounting of the direct costs of prohibition and the reason – I suspect – is because the costs of cannabis prohibition are astronomical and WE GET NOTHING FOR IT.

I've seen projections of revenues foregone – because you can't tax a black market – and these are big numbers but it's hard to assess their reliability. I think econometricians would treat these with caution.

Of opportunity costs, these are incalculable. The cost to individuals of acquiring a criminal record – and its accompanying life-long stigmatization – cannot be measured in dollars. The loss of job prospects, travel opportunities, self-esteem, various forms of professional development … I don't think there's a way to tally these.

Then there's the diversion of resources, time and expertise from real and serious crimes to cannabis-related crimes, which represents a dead-weight loss on the criminal justice system. That includes legal aid, the cost of prosecution and court time. It just goes on and on. Every dime spent on cannabis prosecutions is a dime not spent addressing something substantively harmful – like preventing domestic abuse or treating alcohol abuse.

The greatest cost of prohibition is non-economic, at least directly: it is the limiting of our creativity to make use of this natural substance that has been in human civilization since the dawn of time. Legal prohibition has imposed an epistemic closure on us, discouraging creative innovation with this substance. We know that the plant produces hundreds of compounds but we've only barely scratched the surface on the benefits these compounds may yield for humans.

Then there is the recreational benefit. How do you assign an economic cost to the feeling of bliss and elation that many people experience under its influence?

Anthony Wile: When we last spoke with you, you explained that NORML Canada's mandate is "to bring about a modernized cannabis regime grounded in public health, liberty and human rights principles." Tell us what that regime would look like.

Craig Jones: This is a work in progress within NORML Canada. We have people with a libertarian bent at one end of the spectrum and people like me with a preference for a public health approach. We all agree on liberty of access but we are still working toward consensus on, for instance, whether children should have legal access – perhaps with a note from a parent? These are the devils in the details and it's a work in progress.

What we have to remember is that cannabis never should have been criminalized in the first place – and was criminalized on the basis of a racist moral panic – so now that we're on the verge of legalizing we need to be asking; "What is the best way to treat this substance so that all liberal democratic rights and interests are respected?"

I prefer – but I'm only one voice – a regime that is designed to learn and adapt as it matures. Perhaps we start out more restrictive and relax as we move forward so that the regime evolves to reflect our capacity to learn (I'm a believer in learning). I would rather look back – say 50 years out – and say, "We got it right," than, "I wish we'd done something different."

The optimal public health regime would ensure liberty of access to persons at the age of majority through some model of vending that discouraged branding and advertising and kept it out of the hands of kids – to the greatest extent possible and with the full realization that we ought not permit the best to become the enemy of the good.

A public health model would limit hours of sale – as we do in Ontario with alcohol – and erect other barriers to children, including banning "Joe Camel"-like marketing campaigns. The public health model would also incorporate a lot of education and, perhaps, nudge people toward lower-potency products while creating social norms for safe and moderate use. A public health model would also control for potency, purity, contaminants, molds, pesticides, etc. Edibles and other extracts would be clearly labeled and social norms would encourage safe and moderate use.

A more liberty-focused model would vend through ordinary storefronts and – perhaps – impose a different age limit, or require permission from a parent. There would be fewer restrictions on branding and advertising and less concern with what I'm calling safe or moderate use.

Anthony Wile: You said marijuana should be "legal and regulated according to public health principles adapted from alcohol and tobacco regulation. We don't need to re-invent the wheel. We know 'what works' …." Do Canada's current medical marijuana regulations follow "what works"?

Craig Jones: Not, by and large, from the standpoint of medical users – at least the sample that I've talked with (not very scientific). I'm not on top of the medicinal scene, personally.

Anthony Wile: From your perspective, does it look like the regulatory regime that will be implemented for adult-use legalization will adhere to "what works"? Or is it still totally unformulated as of now?

Craig Jones: Unformulated as of this writing. They have kept their cards close to their chest on this. My strong intuition is that Trudeau will want to "do it right," by which I mean serious consultation with all stakeholders, close examination of options from the international experience, deliberation over principles and evidence from a Canadian perspective – trying as much as possible to avoid repeating errors or mistakes from other jurisdictions.

The Trudeau Liberals would win a lot of support if they swung the pendulum back toward an evidence- and principles-based approach to public policy. We have come through – to be honest – a dark time in Canadian history: an era of epistemic closure in big and important policy domains, where ideology trumped evidence and the only thing that mattered was pandering to a narrow electoral base. It was "the worst of times" to be advocating for evidence-based public policy, best practices or principles grounded in those.

As of now, we don't know what the Liberals intend beyond what was in their platform. Now that we know who's at Health and Justice, the parts may begin to fall into place. The incoming prime minister can do a lot, without going to Parliament, by order in council. He would be wise to call together provincial health ministers and put them on notice that things are going to change and that they should align their ducks accordingly.

I am encouraged that the new Minister of Health – Janet Philpott, MD – has a family medicine background. That will mean she's not averse to talking evidence, which is on our side. The new justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, is also a promising appointment: she'll be inclined to understand the harm that prohibition has inflicted on her people.

Anthony Wile: When we asked last time about the oft-expressed fear of increased rates of abuse if cannabis is legalized, you replied: "Some people will abuse cannabis irrespective of its legal status. They already are. Whether we will see a spike in abuse is currently unknowable." What have been the results in that regard under the current medical marijuana regime? Has abuse increased at all? Any increase in rates of usage by minors?

Craig Jones: Abuse is a problematic term. One person's use is another person's abuse – which are weasel words for saying "we don't know." But "we don't know" is also the truth because we don't track these things because we don't have reliable metrics or robust indicators or even professional unanimity on what constitutes abuse.

What we do know is that self reports indicate use by youth fluctuates for reasons no one understands and irrespective of criminal sanctions. Jurisdictions with the harshest penalties – like the United States in the 1990s – had among the highest rates of use in some places, much lower in others. One of the benefits of legalization will be – in the fullness of time – the relaxation of the stigma that is associated with cannabis use, and people will finally be able to talk about it honestly without fear of the "reefer madness" label. What we can say on the basis of voluntary reports is that many people find cannabis useful for treating anxiety disorders – complex trauma, etc. – and there is a lot of this about, and not only among soldiers returning from theatres of war.

I was told by someone who claims to know, whose identity I will protect, that there is "an epidemic of PTSD among first responders" – police, paramedics, ambulance attendants, firemen, etc. – and that many of them are self-medicating with cannabis. That's anecdote, not science. We need to know more – but the affected people have to be willing to tell us more without threat of career-ending consequences.

The other thing we can say with some confidence is that cannabis is on the benign end of the spectrum where abuse is concerned. Of course, abuse is abuse is abuse – but the abuse of alcohol is worse than the abuse of cannabis for a variety of reasons. That's going to sound outrageous to some people but I think Dr. David Nutt has shown it to be true. (The Lancet, 1 November 2010).

This immediately raises the question whether cannabis is less harmful because illegal and therefore people use less of it? Will we, then, see a rise in harmful abusive behavior once it is legal?

Like all substances of abuse, the abusers tend to be a minority – it's the 80/20 rule: 20 percent of the users consume 80 percent of the product. There are variations, of course, but that's the general tendency. And that's broadly true of alcohol. I strongly suspect that those who will abuse cannabis once legal are already abusing it while illegal.

What legalization will offer is a re-focus on education and harm reduction and truth-telling – even rehabilitation for people who need it. That can only be good.

Anthony Wile: The UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs scheduled for April 2016 promises to usher in big changes on the global stage. What do you hope to see come from that? What do you expect?

Craig Jones: I expect a completely different attitude from the Canadian delegation. I expect the Canadians to approach the UNGASS liberated from the Harperian mindset – "ideology uber alles" – that made Canada look ridiculous for the last nine years.

Anthony Wile: You just wrapped up your second annual NORML Canada National Conference in late September. Was it well attended? Highlights?

Craig Jones: Slightly smaller this time, but a packed venue featuring some of the rock stars of the policy reform movement – including NORML's president and vice-president, John Conroy and Alan Young. Paul Lewin and the Toronto group pulled off a great one-day conference. We're really blessed with committed and principled volunteers.

Anthony Wile: Thanks for your time.

After Thoughts

Craig Jones is certainly a dedicated activist, and together with his NORML Canada associates their persistence has contributed to significant change in Canada's cannabis landscape. Their effort is by no means the only reason the cannabis-friendly Liberal Party and Justin Trudeau won the national election in October, of course, but it surely had an impact.

The group's goal was to increase voter participation – "We felt that the popular vote in the previous two general elections – the lowest in Canadian history – spoke to a democratic deficit that we, as citizens with an impulse for reform, had to reverse" – and worked hard to turn that around, apparently with good results.

It remains to be seen how quickly the newly elected government will move toward putting in place adult-use recreational cannabis regulations but, as Mr. Jones stated, "If [Trudeau's] smart, he will move quickly … and begin taxing consumption as soon as possible. That way he will (a) have worked out all the bugs in the regime by the next election; and, (b) have some windfall to splash around for socially progressive purposes."

We've written much about the "windfall" government budgets stand to receive from legal cannabis. Another potential windfall, as he mentions, is to election efforts. NORML Canada posted the positions (or lack thereof) of every candidate for Parliament on their website, to inform potential voters. Yet another example of the impact of the Internet Reformation, access to this information can help constituents hold officeholders to account based on their stated positions.

In the US, as well, electoral politics has had to finally address the growing popular support for legalization. In the most recent presidential debates both Republican and Democratic candidates more or less went on the record regarding their positions on the issue. The Marijuana Policy Project has created a similar online information portal, listing the presidential candidates' stated positions as well as past records on cannabis.

Bernie Sanders, on the Democratic ticket, stated his position clearly in the last debate and has introduced the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act, which would remove marijuana from the federal list of Schedule I drugs but allow states to determine what action they will take within their borders. Republican candidate Rand Paul was similarly clear in his statements, and cosponsored a bill last March, the CARERS Act, that would open the door for medical marijuana research by reclassifying it as a Schedule II substance.

Whatever one thinks of the real impact of elections and voting, or about state regulation, the governmental bodies that make the rules at this point are under increasing pressure to reconsider the longstanding near-global hardline anti-cannabis stance. Add to this popular pressure the lucrative big-money influence – think George Soros, Warren Buffet, Richard Branson, and the Koch brothers, to list just a few well-known names investing in the sector – for those candidates willing to embrace big cannabis, and "windfall" takes on a whole new meaning.

Our thanks to Craig Jones for sharing his perspectives with us again.

Posted in Cannabis / Marijuana, Exclusive Interviews