MONTREAL — Canada on Wednesday became the first major world economy to legalize recreational marijuana, beginning a national experiment that will alter the country’s social, cultural and economic fabric, and present the nation with its biggest public policy challenge in decades.
Across the country, as government pot retailers opened from Newfoundland to British Columbia, jubilant Canadians waited for hours in line to buy the first state-approved joints. For many, it was a seminal moment, akin to the ending of Prohibition in the United States in the 1930s.
It was also an unlikely unifier, coming at a time when Canada has been buffeted by bruising trade talks with the United States and has seen its prime minister, Justin Trudeau, repeatedly ridiculed by President Trump. Canada is only the second country in the world, after Uruguay, to legalize marijuana.
Canadians broadly support cannabis legalization, but amid the euphoria, there was also caution.
“Legalization of cannabis is the largest public policy shift this country has experienced in the past five decades,” said Mike Farnworth, British Columbia’s minister of public safety.
“It’s an octopus with many tentacles, and there are many unknowns,” he added, “I don’t think that when the federal government decided to legalize marijuana it thought through all of the implications.”
In a stinging editorial published on Monday, for example, the Canadian Medical Association Journal called the government’s legalization plan an “uncontrolled experiment in which the profits of cannabis producers and tax revenues are squarely pitched against the health of Canadians.”
It called on the government to promise to change the law if it leads to increased marijuana use.
Under Canada’s new federal cannabis act, adults will be allowed to possess, carry and share with other adults up to 30 grams of dried cannabis, enough to roll roughly 60 regular-size joints. They will also be permitted a maximum of four homegrown marijuana plants per household in most provinces.
[Yes, Canadians can grow their own, but not in every province. No, it won’t be legal for kids to smoke. Here’s what you need to know as Canada legalizes marijuana.]
Marijuana for medical purposes has been legal in Canada since 2001, and about 330,000 Canadians, including cancer patients, are registered to receive it from licensed producers.
Pre-rolled joints, fresh or dried marijuana flowers, and cannabis oil are all permitted under the law. Cannabis edibles — like pot-infused jelly beans, peanut butter and coffee — won’t be legal for another year.
According to Statistics Canada, 4.9 million Canadians used cannabis last year and consumed more than 20 grams of marijuana per person, spending a total of $5.6 billion.
On Wednesday morning, the government announced that it would introduce legislation to make it easier for Canadians who had been convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana to obtain a pardon.
While the government is not offering a blanket amnesty, Ralph Goodale, the public safety minister, said at a news conference in Ottawa that as “a matter of basic fairness,” the government would seek to end the minimum waiting period of five years to apply for a pardon as well as waiving the fee of 631 Canadian dollars.
The federal government has left the country’s 13 provinces and territories to carry out the new legislation and set their own rules, creating a patchwork of regulations. Among many open questions are how the police will test drivers who may be high and how employers deal with employees who smoke before coming to work.
Bernard Le Foll, a specialist in addiction at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, a leading teaching hospital and research organization, said that although the center supported legalization, he was concerned that the public dissemination of information about risks had been insufficient.
“Cannabis is not a benign substance,” he said. “There is a clear risk of addiction, and it can produce significant mental health issues if used by the wrong kind of people.”
He added, “It took decades for the public to understand the risks of cigarettes, and the legalization of cannabis has taken place only over a few years.”
Jean-Sébastien Fallu, an associate professor of applied psychology and a specialist in addiction at Université de Montréal, said he particularly worried about the effects on young people.
“We don’t want young people to feel stigmatized, for example, if they don’t use cannabis, and, as we have seen with alcohol, there can be a lot of social pressure,” Professor Fallu said.
“Once the profit motive becomes the main imperative,” he added, “and big business lobbying becomes entrenched, we are worried that public health and safety will be sacrificed.”
The so-called “green rush” is already on, as licensed cannabis growers have been pressing for months to get a foothold in what is expected to be a $5 billion industry (6.5 billion Canadian dollars) by 2020, buttressed by the expected arrival of thousands of pot tourists from across the United States.
In early trading on Wednesday, though, after several months of rising to dizzying multibillion-dollar heights for the biggest companies, Canada’s marijuana growers saw their stock prices fall. Many analysts said the value of legalization had long ago been worked into their prices by investors.
At the government cannabis store in Montreal, a line stretched across a long city block on Wednesday morning. Some of the hundreds of people had been waiting since 3:30 a.m. anticipating the store’s 10 a.m. opening.
Kate Guihan, 29, a beautician, said she planned to celebrate the “historic moment” on Wednesday night with several puffs on a joint. The low cost of government pot, she added, was a big draw for her, along with the fact that legal marijuana was screened and devoid of contaminants found in some black-market marijuana.
In Halifax, the mood was similarly buoyant.
“We are witnessing history,” said Shawn King, the host of a countdown to legalization on a local radio station. “Marijuana prohibition is ending after 96 years. There’s going to be a generation of people that never knew it was ever banned.”
Inside a government retailer in Halifax that looked like an Apple store, shoppers browsed for products including “Ghost Train” and “Lemon Skunk.” Bongs were on display. Pre-rolled joints were in demand. Some shoppers bought weed, and others accessorized.
Others across the country were ordering pot online from government stores. In New Brunswick, the government cannabis agency provided a step-by-step guide on its website on how to roll a joint.
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The government’s stated rationale for legalizing cannabis is to tame an illegal trade estimated at 5.3 billion Canadian dollars in 2017 by Statistics Canada. But from Toronto to Winnipeg to Vancouver, hundreds of illegal shops have indicated that they have no intention of shutting down, and the black market supply chain remains deeply entrenched.
Chief Constable Adam Palmer of the Vancouver Police Department, who is also the president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, said this week that at a time of limited resources, policing marijuana would not suddenly become law enforcement’s primary concern.
“Fentanyl kills 11 Canadians a day,” he said, referring to the powerful synthetic opioid that is a public health scourge in some cities like Vancouver. “Marijuana does not.”
He added, “I don’t expect a big crackdown on day one.”