This election may decide whether Canada makes a historic leap toward marijuana reform or remains a legal battleground between cannabis advocates and a resistant federal government.
Under the federal Conservatives, Ottawa has long argued pot is dangerous, unproven as a medicine, and a serious risk to youth if legal access grows.
The government has only allowed possession by authorized medical marijuana users after courts ruled in 2000 they have a right to reasonable access.
Since then, tens of thousands of Canadians became approved users and many got federal permits to grow it themselves.
Cities grew anxious about the explosion of often unsafe legal grow-ops in their midst.
That was one reason the Conservatives tried in 2014 to outlaw home growing of medical pot and force users to buy only via mail order from a new group of approved commercial producers.
Corporate growers have rushed to carve up the market while pot activists and lawyers have fought to defend and widen the ability for anyone to grow and sell the stuff.
Nowhere has that battle been more obvious than in Vancouver, where more than 100 medical pot dispensaries have opened, illegally selling weed in contravention of federal law, but largely unmolested by police.
Vancouver and other cities aim to regulate retail pot stores themselves. Ottawa wants them closed instead and threatened to send in the RCMP.
Meanwhile, time seems on the side of legalization advocates, who say the drug can be regulated and taxed much like alcohol rather than feeding organized crime.
Societal attitudes have shifted as a growing number of voters accept the case for reform.
A new Insights West poll found 65 per cent national support to legalize marijuana, with 30 per cent opposed. More than two-thirds believe pot has legitimate health benefits and that legalizing and taxing it would generate needed government revenue, while allowing police to focus on other priorities.
As more U.S. states legalize recreational marijuana – Washington has been joined by Colorado, Oregon and Alaska – B.C.’s advocates can increasingly point across the border and argue the sky has not fallen.
Where the parties stand
The Conservatives insist Canada will not follow them down a road that expands drug culture and its risks, instead promising to fund more RCMP anti-drug operations.
Conservative leader Stephen Harper upped the rhetoric this month when he called marijuana “infinitely worse” than tobacco in terms of damage to health, a claim contradicted by health experts, though they say pot poses elevated risks for teens.
The NDP would immediately decriminalize pot – leader Tom Mulcair says no one should have a criminal record for personal use – and then study further legalization options.
The Greens would legalize, regulate and tax it. Their platform banks on about $5 billion a year in marijuana tax revenue.
Under leader Justin Trudeau, the Liberals were the first major party to promise outright legalization and regulation, though they haven’t yet budgeted any tax revenue. They argue legal, tightly regulated marijuana can be kept out of kids’ hands as effectively as booze and cigarettes.
“Oct. 19 is a pretty big day for cannabis policy in this country,” says lawyer Kirk Tousaw, who has led multiple challenges of federal marijuana regulations.
He credits Trudeau with being most upfront in promising legalization at a time when many politicians remain gun shy, but believes both the Liberals and NDP would deliver major change.
A key issue if reform comes, he said, is whether anyone can grow their own pot – and even sell it at farmer’s markets – rather than just buying from corporate growers and dealers.
“My view is if you don’t have a right to grow your own cannabis you don’t live in a place where it’s actually legal.”
A re-elected Conservative government could face further proliferation of illegal retail stores – forcing Ottawa to either crack down or else concede de facto legalization in parts of the country.
Court challenges continue
A Tory victory would also continue the legal chess game between pot proponents and federal lawyers, at a rising cost to taxpayers.
The Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled in June that medical marijuana can legally be possessed or sold in the form of cookies, other edibles and derivatives, not just dried bud.
So far, the government response has been to permit commercial producers to sell only medical pot oils at a low THC dosage, not other edibles.
A Federal Court judge will rule soon on another challenge – also argued by Tousaw – over whether medical patients can keep growing their own pot.
That decision could deal another blow to the new commercial production system.
“It could go either way,” Tousaw said. “Even if it’s a win for the patients, what that win looks like is probably going to be strongly influenced by what government is sitting in Ottawa.”
A re-elected Harper government confronted by more court defeats could still make medical pot access as difficult as possible by tightly regulating the amount that can be legally possessed or grown.
“Every time the courts have held a facet of the medical cannabis program in this country to be unconstitutional, the government has responded by doing the absolute minimum it can to comply with what the court has said,” Tousaw said.
Which is why pot reformers prefer a swift victory at the ballot box to clear the legal haze.