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The New York Times Canada Letter: The lingering questions of legal cannabis

December 21, 2019

Just over a year has passed since Canada became the first large industrialized nation to legalize recreational marijuana. Here’s the mini version of the article I wrote for The Times about what it has brought the country: tears for investors, frustration for many shoppers and indifference from most of the public, but few of the widely feared problems. Please let me encourage you to read the full version.

A Canopy growing room in Smiths Falls, Ontario.Chris Wattie for The New York Times

As is often the case with longer stories, my reporting took me down many paths that ultimately couldn’t be included in the article. But as we mark the first week of legal sales of edibles (if, again, on a limited basis), let’s look at some of the unresolved issues surrounding the legal marijuana market:

— I spoke with Monica Haberl, a researcher at the Conference Board of Canada, who studies how employers are dealing with cannabis use by their workers.

She compared the fears in the run-up to marijuana legalization with the Y2K fretting of two decades ago.

“There was all this hubbub sort of leading up to it, and then it wasn’t really the disaster that people expected it to be,” Ms. Haberl said. “I always have to add the qualifier that it doesn’t mean that there aren’t still legitimate concerns and that there won’t be new ones in the future. So it’s still something worth having a conversation about.”

At the top of the list of her concerns are the effects of edibles on workplaces. Smoking remains the most common way for Canadians to get their marijuana buzzes. For employers that’s a good thing, as it leaves a lingering and unmistakable odor on users. (By the way, the smell in commercial marijuana grow rooms like the one pictured in this newsletter is almost unbearable after a couple of minutes.)

Marijuana plants used for cloning at Canopy Growth. Ian Austen/The New York Times

But, Ms. Haberl said, “from a workplace safety standpoint, edibles are just easier to hide and harder for an employer to detect.”

On top of all that, she said, the science is still out on how to define marijuana impairment, something that has become even more difficult with edibles because they metabolize differently within the body than smoked weed.

“The science is not there to say ‘one toke for women, two tokes for men,’ as is the case with alcohol and blood levels,” she said. “The science is essentially behind the legislation.”

— At McMaster University in Hamilton, Michael Amlung, a professor of psychiatry who studies addictions, told me that defining impairment isn’t the only outstanding cannabis issue on researchers’ agendas.

“One of the things that’s concerning from my standpoint in terms of research is when we’re talking about cannabis use among youth. We don’t know much about the effects of cannabis on the developing brain — and the brain does continue to develop into the teen years and into the early 20s,” he said. “There is some preliminary evidence that heavy cannabis use during those time periods can impact typical neural development, but we don’t understand yet what the potential long-term consequences may be.”

He is also dismayed about many claims around marijuana, particularly the idea that different strains offer specific properties — like, say, aiding sleep.

“There is a lot of snake oil at this point,” he said. “This idea that cannabis is a miracle plant that will cure all of your ailments is, at least currently, not supported by the science.”

Genetic analysis by botanists, Professor Amlung said, shows that there has been so much cross breeding between strains “that those labels are largely meaningless from a scientific standpoint.”

Labels for cannabis-infused drinks, which became legal this week in Canada. Ian Austen/The New York Times

But while he had concerns, Professor Amlung was also confident in predicting that there was little possibility that Canada would become a land of stoners, even if legalization led to more people using cannabis.

“In terms of it being a scourge on society and leading to the so-called reefer madness, I just don’t see that as being a likely outcome,” he said.

— Finally, it’s not clear when the industry will start making money. All of the investment experts I interviewed agreed that we would see many mergers between the various marijuana producers, leading ultimately to a smaller number of large growers.

But none of them were willing to predict when the industry might produce the riches it once promised investors.

“It has been a remarkable swing from euphoria to where we are now,” Eric Kirzner, a professor emeritus of finance at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, told me. “But it really was a crapshoot then, and it’s a crapshoot now.”


Ian Austen A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto and currently lives in Ottawa. He has reported for The Times about Canada for more than a decade.

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