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.
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.
“We will make the application process as simple as it can be,” Mr. Goodale said, adding that details would not be available for several weeks.
Newfoundlanders became the first Canadians to be able to smoke pot legally on Wednesday, when retailers there opened in the country’s easternmost province at midnight.
Customers waited outside a store after recreational marijuana went on sale legally in St John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.CreditChris Wattie/Reuters
Across the rest of the country, government-run stores were preparing to greet consumers, who will be able to choose among pre-rolled joints, fresh or dried marijuana flowers and cannabis oil — all of which are permitted under the new federal law.
At a government cannabis store in eastern Montreal, a line stretched across a long city block on Wednesday morning. Hundreds of people, some of whom had been waiting since 3:30 a.m. for the store’s 10 a.m. opening, waited, some smoking joints, filling the air with the pungent smell of marijuana.
As the first customers left the store with dried cannabis in brown shopping bags, the crowd cheered..
“I have never felt so proud to be Canadian,” said Marco Beaulieu, 29, a janitor. “Canada is once again a progressive global leader. We have had gay rights, feminism, abortion rights — and now we can smoke pot without having to worry police are going to arrest us.”
Kate Guihan, 29, a beautician, had been in line for hours.
She 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.
“This is a great moment for Canada,” she said. “It will bring in money, help reduce the black market.”
The first legal cannabis sale at Tweed, a retail store in St. John’s. Canada is only the second country in the world, after Uruguay, to legalize cannabis.CreditChris Wattie/Reuters
Marijuana advocates were also jubilant about the day.
“The fact that we are moving away from a Prohibition model is a victory for human rights and social justice, an economic windfall for the Canadian economy and a sign of social progress,” said Adam Greenblatt, a director at Canopy Growth, a producer that has been valued at more than $10 billion.
Others were more cautious.
“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, 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.
But the so-called “green rush” is already on, as licensed cannabis growers have been rushing 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 border in 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..
When Justin Trudeau ran for prime minister three years ago, legalizing recreational marijuana was one of his campaign promises. Canadians broadly support cannabis legalization, reflecting a progressive liberal-minded country where use of the previously illegal drug has been commonplace.
Canada is only the second country in the world, after Uruguay, to legalize it.
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.
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.”
A so-called head shop in Toronto. When Justin Trudeau ran for prime minister three years ago, legalizing recreational marijuana was one of his campaign promises.CreditChris Donovan for The New York Times.
Jean-Sébastien Fallu, an associate professor of applied psychology and a specialist in addiction at Université de Montréal, said he 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.”
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.]
The federal government has left the country’s 13 provinces and territories to carry out the new legislation and to 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.
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.
The federal government has left the country’s 13 provinces and territories to carry out the new legislation and set their own rules.CreditAlana Paterson for The New York Times
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.
Cannabis edibles — like pot-infused jelly beans, peanut butter and coffee — won’t be legal for another year.
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.”