Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/11/2017 – that’s before recreational cannabis was legal in Canada, so language and information in the article may be dated.
Bill Blair, the Liberal Member of Parliament who is regularly tasked with explaining the federal government's cannabis legalization plan to the public, has characterized the black market as a "gangster in a stairwell."
And that sinister image is how the former Toronto chief of police and current parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice describes someone who would sell marijuana to a child.
That's why it makes sense to Ottawa to legalize and regulate a safe supply of cannabis, funnelling profits and taxes to legal companies and governments instead of the loitering dealer and his shifty criminal gang.
On Tuesday, federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor went even further, telling reporters, "100 per cent of the cannabis market in Canada is unregulated and operated by organized crime."
But legalizing weed for recreational use is unlikely to take the stairwell dealer out of the game, experts say.
In fact, available evidence suggests the majority of people selling it now aren't linked to organized crime at all, contrary to the health minister's claim.
That's what the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition pointed out in its 2016 submission to the federal task force on cannabis legalization. The CDPC cited an internal justice department study from 2011 that examined the prosecution files for more than 500 marijuana production cases in Alberta, Ontario and B.C., between 1997 and 2005.Advertisement
The researchers found only five per cent of the studied 500 grow-op cases "yielded any indication that the offender was affiliated with organized crime or street gangs."
Not a single case resulted in "charges for criminal organization," the report said, although the data included 118 charges for conspiracy.
That 2011 report, which was originally obtained by investigative reporter Dean Beeby and was never released to the public, was also cited by academics Susan Boyd and Connie Carter in their 2014 book Killer Weed: Marijuana Grow Ops, Media, and Justice.
The authors reviewed more than 2,500 Canadian newspaper articles about marijuana grow-ops in British Columbia between 1995 and 2009 and found a recurring theme: the operations were repeatedly framed as a public-safety issue linked to violent, organized crime. (B.C. is generally considered the epicentre of marijuana culture and black-market production in Canada.)
Boyd, a criminologist and distinguished professor at the University of Victoria who served on the nine-member federal legalization task force, says her book was "very clear that organized crime and gangs are most likely involved in cannabis production."
But she believes the proportion of organized crime activity in cannabis growing has been overstated by the media, which have historically relied on reports written by police or researchers affiliated with law enforcement.
"Everyone was referring, in this circular way, back to these reports," she says.
The justice department's finding that organized crime had little involvement in grow-ops, Boyd says, was more in line with international academic research on the kinds of people who grow marijuana.
"What they were suggesting from their findings was that the cannabis production was quite diverse, from very small-time growers who wanted to have a better quality of cannabis — or organic cannabis — to people who participated in what you might call 'cannabis culture,' where cannabis was their favourite drug and they wanted to be able to have access to it and to share it with friends and family, (for whom) profit wasn't necessarily a motive," she says.
On top of the justice report, a 2017 paper from Statistics Canada also concluded that cannabis-related crimes were less likely to be linked to organized crime than other drug-related crimes.
"Slightly less than one-third (32 per cent) of cannabis-related incidents compared to 61 per cent of other drugs incidents were reported as being committed for the benefit of organized crime," wrote the authors, who drew on police-reported data from different Canadian cities.
The recurring narrative that organized crime is the key driver of illegal cannabis production is understandable, says Rielle Capler, a PhD candidate who studies cannabis regulations at the University of British Columbia and was the lead author of the CDPC submission to the federal task force.
"It sounds right, and you know why I think it sounds right is, it's an illegal market, it's a black market, so it's easy to make an assumption that everybody involved is criminal — they are, by definition, because they're breaking the law."
By the same token, a group of people who engage in illegal cannabis growing could be defined as "organized criminals" according to Canada's legal definition of organized crime. But describing them as organized crime conflates that legal definition with society's understanding of organized crime, which includes "the use of coercion and violence," according to Capler.
"We think of dangerous organized criminals with weapons, and that's the people that society generally wants to distance itself from," Capler says.
"Even in legal industries, wherever there's money to be made, you're going to see organized crime there."
The actual degree to which criminal gangs are involved in the black market for Canadian cannabis may never be known, although legalization could offer a chance to learn more. In the meantime, politicians at the federal, provincial and municipal levels appear fixated on the idea of shrinking the black market by providing a legal alternative.
Legalization is likely to diminish the black market, says Daniel Bear, a professor of criminal justice at Humber College in Toronto, but the idea of eliminating it entirely is far-fetched.
"There are people who, no matter what retail model is used, are going to say, 'I want the personal relationship I have with my dealer,' or 'I want something that might not be provided in the retail shops,'" says Bear. "And they'll stay with the black market."
The price of legal cannabis will also play a role in consumers' choice.
A summer 2017 poll conducted by Oraclepoll Research found that 77 per cent of current and prospective cannabis users would purchase their weed from a legally licensed producer.
But when the same population was asked whether they would consider buying from a non-licensed producer at a lower price, 56 per cent said they would.
Regular users were even more likely to consider a cheap black-market hookup, with 94 per cent of daily users saying they were open to the idea.
"It's important to understand that what we're attempting to do in Canada isn't just legalization, it's regulation, and it's regulation based on a public-health model." -Daniel Bear
The way in which consumers purchase legal marijuana will also have an effect on the black market, say experts, and provincial governments are already deciding how residents will buy their bud. Ontario and Quebec, the two most populous provinces, have both chosen publicly-owned retail systems, whereas Manitoba and Alberta are allowing private retailers to play a role.
"Private-based models tend to be very good at meeting consumer needs, especially when there's not a ton of regulation over what they can sell," says Bear.
"They will meet the market demand; this is what they're good at. They'll be able to compete on price quite well, and so they'll have a very good opportunity to take away customers from the black market."
But that doesn't mean a private model is necessarily best, Bear says. The government's desire to reduce the black market has to compete with another policy imperative: public health.
"It's important to understand that what we're attempting to do in Canada isn't just legalization, it's regulation, and it's regulation based on a public-health model.
"If we're going with a public-health model, our concern then isn't necessarily to meet consumer demand straight off the bat, or really even to eliminate the black market completely right away. The goal is to provide access in the least harmful or most publicly healthful, beneficial ways."
The federal government "got a lot of things right" with its proposed Cannabis Act, Bear says, but there's room for improvement if Ottawa wants to reduce the black market as much as possible.
In particular, the government could take a more inclusive approach to who's allowed to grow legally. Right now, the strict rules for licensed producers favour well-moneyed players with lots of experience in corporate regulatory compliance. (The government's new draft regulations for legal cannabis hint that smaller players might be able to join in, though.)
"Let's say you're an expert cannabis grower," surmises Bear. "You grow really good cannabis, and you've done it illegally for years. Right now, to get into the legal side of things might look very daunting, if near impossible."
Boyd agrees that the government should find a way to let small growers enter the legal regime.
"I worry a little about the claim about organized crime because I feel that the provinces and the federal government won't provide better avenues for these people, who have actually built up a large knowledge base about cannabis and strains and its usages," she says.
"They won't find a way into this legal market. And I think that that could jeopardize what we want to see once it's legally regulated, if we don't bring them in, in some way."
Ultimately, the market for legal cannabis is facing a well-entrenched competitor, says Capler.
"Because the industry already exists, and everything that people would want is already out there, the new market really needs to incorporate everything that is working," she says.
"And I think a lot of that, also, is incorporating a lot of the people who are already involved in it."
Updated on Wednesday, November 22, 2017 at 9:41 PM CST: fixes typo in photo caption