Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

Blair Gibbs: Three years after cannabis legalization, the sky hasn’t fallen

Commentary

The biggest risks with social policy reforms affecting millions of voters all at once — and a reason they rarely happen in peacetime democracies — is that voters’ attitudes get misjudged and the public revolts, or the implementation fails and the beneficiaries lose faith, or the roll-out takes too long and opponents get organized and reverse it before the change is embedded.

None of that happened with the Cannabis Act in Canada. This week marks three years since Bill C-45 received royal assent, so perhaps now is a good time to explore why.

The legalization itself was foreshadowed by an unambiguous platform pledge in 2015 by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party, which became an expert commission, which led to a parliamentary process of debate and revision.

The authority of the expert taskforce certainly gave the government useful cover and also helped socialize the idea that this reform was going to happen and with good justification. But no country legalizes out of the blue. The gradual normalization of cannabis in Canada played an important role. Having had more than a decade of a regulated legal market for medicinal cannabis created a viable domestic industry with a legitimate business model.

With dozens of private companies as licensed producers serving tens of thousands of patients across the country who were treating their conditions with cannabis, cannabis itself was becoming a fact of life. Voters got to know more about it, and they personally knew people who had benefited from its use.

In addition, and contrary to the arguments of social justice activists, the police had been easing off pot enforcement for years — and when politicians in Ottawa openly started debating full legalization between 2015 and 2017, detected offences fell even further.

There was almost a decade of gradual de-policing of cannabis before Bill C-45 was passed, even as recorded offences for other drug crimes stayed flat or even increased. So the backdrop was pointing in one direction — cannabis was increasingly being accepted, and its use in the community openly tolerated. The high rates of reported use and low levels of enforcement set the stage: cannabis was condoned here before it was made legal.

However, the fast roll-out also gave the reform a good chance of overcoming opposition. It is remarkable how quickly the broad consensus that prohibition was not working led to a new status quo — from a lone election campaign pledge to the first legal sales in less than 36 months. Political historians will analyze to what extent the reform was inevitable, but through a contemporary lens, it is striking just how little opposition mobilized successfully against it.

One reason was that the proposal gave opponents and skeptics a real stake. In the Canadian federal tradition, the balance has worked out politically for all parties. The single criminal code has been amended, and all production is licensed and monitored exclusively by the federal government, but provinces still decide how, where and by what channel cannabis can be sold, and what minimum age consumers need to be; even municipalities can have a say about local retail.

The more conservative provinces have used this freedom to align the legalization with what their voters want and avoid getting ahead of public appetite for this new industry. In Quebec, they have restricted access to edible products, limited the spread of stores, and imposed a higher minimum age of 21.

On a per capita basis, for every government-run SQDC store in Quebec, there are 18 private retail stores in Alberta. The results mean that the experience of legalization depends largely on where you live. This variable approach has meant the Cannabis Act, despite looking like a risky Big Bang reform, in fact created a dozen mini-legalization experiments, and made the political reality primarily a local, provincial issue. This has de-risked the reform for Trudeau’s government and allowed the public to be kept broadly supportive.

Political historians will analyze to what extent the reform was inevitable, but through a contemporary lens, it is striking just how little opposition mobilized successfully against it.

Implementation of the policy relied on a good legislative framework, a well-resourced bureaucracy in Health Canada, and having the authorities, including the police, prepared for the law change. Responsibility for delivering retail stores and an efficient supply chain was shunted onto the provincial governments and has gone largely without a hitch. The tax regime is working to raise revenue, and from this year, three-quarters of the revenue from the federal excise duty on each legal gram of cannabis sold will go back to provinces to support their costs.

Only around impaired driving have there been difficulties, with no widespread roadside testing by police — hampered by both a lack of coverage and too few cops equipped with the authorized testing devices.

Clearly the implementation has not gone smoothly for everyone. The speculation and market manipulation that accompanied the early investing frenzy led to a dramatic crash in 2019 and will still claim some big corporate casualties before the market stabilizes.

Initial shortages and then a supply glut may have caused commercial disruption and collapsing stock prices, but major growing pains in a new legal industry are inevitable. Those who have made or lost money in this crowded and chaotic new industry all have their reasons to judge how it has played out, but the public has not been disappointed, and in political terms it has been relatively plain sailing. The consumer experience has improved every year since the launch, with more products, lower prices and better-quality cannabis for sale now than in 2018.

So the backdrop was conducive, the political proposition not fundamentally disputed, and the implementation was swift and largely successful. But what is the decisive factor for why cannabis legalization in Canada has worked out so well? The answer seems to be that Canadians were ready for it.

In polling undertaken for a forthcoming research report for Stanford University, my consultancy firm, Public First, tested Canadian attitudes to legalization today. In a representative online survey of 1,148 Canadian adults conducted between May 28 and June 3, 2021, we found that a majority (53 percent) support legalization, with just 18 percent opposed.

In fact, in every province and across every age group, support outnumbers opposition. Even among older voters, aged 55 to 64 and also 65-plus, support outnumbers opposition by almost two to one. Even among respondents who voted Conservative at the 2019 election, 46 percent support legalization against just 30 percent who oppose it.

When asked if the legalization of cannabis has worked out mostly well or badly, half of voters (49 percent) say it has gone well or very well, 22 percent say it has gone neither well nor badly, and just 15 percent say it has gone badly or very badly. These are solid numbers for a bold social reform so soon after it has taken effect. In fact, it may have already delivered political rewards.

For most voters it made no difference, but for those aged 18 to 34, around a fifth claim that it made them more likely to vote for the Liberal Party in the 2019 election.

It is still too early to evaluate the impact of this policy. The best data we have suggests it has been a qualified success — with an increasing share of cannabis consumption moving from the illicit market to legal channels. However, there are also signs that overall use may be increasing, including daily or almost daily use, though not among all groups.

Nevertheless, it will be years before longer-term effects — on consumption rates, youth access, the illicit market, or mental health and psychosis — can be properly evaluated. And by then, Justin Trudeau will be a former prime minister and this part of his domestic legacy will be secure, and probably irreversible.

Almost unique in the world, Canada chose to replace prohibition with a legal, regulated cannabis market, and the public is okay with the consequences. Not because the policy is perfect, or because nothing about prohibition made sense, but because Canadians were ready for the change, the legislation was implemented successfully, and, three years on, the sky has still not fallen.

Sean Speer: The decades long resistance to mRNA vaccines shows the need for reform

Commentary

One of the most extraordinary stories of the pandemic is that of Katalin Karikó, a Hungarian-born, American-based scientist whose decades-long research on the therapeutic possibilities of mRNA led to the COVID-19 vaccine and ultimately saved the world.

What makes it so extraordinary is it only happened because of Karikó’s own single-minded determination and dogged persistence. Notwithstanding recent historical revisionism on the part of different academic institutions and funding agencies to assume some credit for the miraculous progress on mRNA vaccines, the truth is actually closer to the opposite.

Karikó’s enormous personal contribution deserves the recent mix of admiration and accolades – including a future Nobel Prize – precisely because she overcame various institutional obstacles to produce such a major breakthrough. Her greatest accomplishment is both simple yet profound: she resisted the academic blob that upholds the peer-review process as the so-called “gold standard” and instead chose to stay steadfast in her vision of something different and better.

Her experience reflects a broader indictment of the conformity and clubbyness of modern academia and the failings of peer review as a barrier to progress. It therein provides a crucial lesson as we think about how to reform post-secondary institutions, design better research funding programs, and ultimately create the conditions for greater progress in science and other fields of discovery.

As others have documented, Karikó faced ongoing discouragement and outright resistance from the scientific establishment for more than two decades. Her funding proposals were consistently rejected, she was professionally demoted, and her ideas were, by and large, ostracized by the most powerful figures in the world of academic research and scholarship. She was the quintessential outsider in an world marked by insiderism.

Karikó’s main transgressions were two-fold: first, her worked deviated from the pre-existing body of knowledge; and second, she wasn’t, by all accounts, “adept at the competitive game of science.” In today’s world of highly-specialized academic gatekeepers, these are disqualifying traits. Our current system of peer review for research funding and scholarly publishing preferences a combination of insularity and incrementalism over broad-mindedness and breakthroughs.

It’s hard to overstate how devastating these setbacks must have been for Karikó as an aspiring scholar. They would have led to a forked road for most in the same position: disappear into academic obscurity or succumb to the peer pressure to conform to conventional research methods and priorities.

But she courageously chose a third option. She accepted the professional indignity and financial consequences of a demotion in order to continue pursuing her research in mRNA. As a former colleague recently wrote: “Karikó lived that nightmare, but stuck to her passions. She was too committed to the promise of mRNA to switch to other, perhaps more easily fundable projects.”

As we now know, this proved to be an inspired choice. Her ongoing work on mRNA – the genetic script that carries DNA instructions to each cell’s protein-making machinery – eventually produced a significant breakthrough. It has since formed the basis of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines and now holds out the potential to revolutionize the treatment of cancer and various infectious diseases.

Karikó’s period in the scientific wilderness is a fundamental failure of the modern peer review system – it reflects what one writer describes as the “sociology of science.” Her experience is a sign that we’ve granted too much power and influence to peer reviewers.

Her ideas were ostracized by the most powerful figures in the world of academic research and scholarship.

Peer review is supposed to be a quality control mechanism. Its goal is to ensure that research and scholarship meet high standards in terms of evidence and rigour by subjecting it to scrutiny by experts in the same field. These reviewers carry significant sway: their recommendations ultimately determine whether a manuscript or grant proposal is accepted, rejected, or improved before publication or approval.

The process is generally well intended and broadly supported among scholars. A 2008 survey of academics, for instance, found that about two thirds were satisfied with the peer review system and 85 percent believed that “scientific communications is greatly helped by peer review.”

But Karikó’s case reveals a major flaw in the system: the process which is supposed to protect against flawed scholarship has come to narrow the horizons of scientific inquiry and reduce the scope of scholarly debate. These inadvertent consequences are arguably worse than the problems that peer review is trying to solve. While we may have less bad scholarship on the margins, it has come at the greater cost of the growing conformity of ideas and a slowdown of progress.

A major source of this problem is the growing hyper-specialization in most academic fields. The world of research and scholarship is increasingly marked by an intra-conversation among a small number of experts within narrow sub-fields. These highly-specialized scholars not only often know one another, but they frequently have direct relationships as co-authors, research collaborators, and PhD supervisors.

In such a narrowly specialized world, peer reviewers are necessarily selected from these small groups of experts. Even with “blind reviews” and the involvement of multiple reviewers, it’s hard to overcome the inherent challenge of insularity. Most research fields are so small that it’s often apparent to reviewers who the author or grant applicant is based on citations, subject, or writing style.

This can lead to an inherent bias in favour of the research priorities, methods, and ideas of the dominant experts in the field. It’s not necessarily the case that reviewers are doing this on purpose. The argument here isn’t that peer review is a backscratching exercise in which scholars in narrow sub-fields favour one another in order to deliberately control the flow of research funding or the articles published in prestigious journals. But that’s essentially the unintentional effect.

It produces a gatekeeper dynamic that tends to preference incrementalism over breakthroughs and which in turn sends a powerful signal to aspiring scholars: don’t diverge too far from the dominant methods and priorities or risk being marginalized by one’s peers.

Karikó’s experience should lead to reforms on how we judge and support academic research. We ought to reduce the scope of peer review (or at least make it less definitive in determining funding or publication decisions), target research funding to younger, less established scholars, and create new funding institutions dedicated to supporting genuine research breakthroughs. These types of institutional and policy changes can help us to pushback against intellectual conformity and renew our collective commitment to progress.

The ultimate measure of success should be that future Karikós don’t fall through the cracks. The opportunity costs in the form of forgone breakthroughs like the mRNA vaccines are far too great for our societies. If her extraordinary experience teaches us this lesson, it will be another thing for which we owe her our debt.