OTTAWA — The leader of the federal Marijuana Party, who for decades advocated for the legalization of cannabis, has now found himself in a peculiar position of being a critic against it.
It's a weird twist of fate Blair Longley is coming to terms with now that the Liberal government has come through on its election promise to legalize and regulate the use of recreational marijuana.
"You know, from a sublime point of view, it's amusing to watch," the 68-year-old self-described political philosopher explains over the phone from Montreal. "Even if it's like a wonderland-Matrix-bizarro world where everything is absurdly backwards and just gets more absurdly backwards all the time."
Reports of product shortages, delivery backlogs and excessive packaging have tempered some expectations in these early days of post-pot prohibition Canada.
Every single dollar of that spent this past week, under the old system, would have gone to the pockets of criminals.Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
At a town hall at an Ottawa high school on Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau repeated his message that pot prohibition didn't work, using the example of lineups and a crush of online orders across the country, which produced "millions of dollars" in legal marijuana sales.
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"Every single dollar of that spent this past week, under the old system, would have gone to the pockets of criminals," Trudeau told students. "Now, we are at least controlling it as a controlled substance that will mean we will have a safer society, more opportunities to educate people about making smart choices which include not using marijuana."
Longley has long advocated for the versatility of the marijuana plant itself, from hemp's use as a sustainable textile to the medicinal benefits of its flowers. It's been a mind-bending exercise for him to digest the sudden commercialization (and normalization) of a counter-culture movement. As he puts it: marijuana has become a money tree.
"It's so surreal when you see the spokespersons for the licensed producers parroting the talking points of legalized marijuana that we've been repeating for decades," Longley says, suggesting businesses have an ulterior agenda to cut regulations and be allowed to do more branding and advertising so they can make more money.
It's getting "snobbish," he explains. He laughs and talks about a line of new luxury handbags that offer an odour-proof purse for the "modern marijuana woman."
The Cannabis Act, which came into force Oct. 17, allows people 18 and over (the legal age is 18 in Alberta and Quebec and 19 everywhere else in Canada) to possess up to 30 grams of dried pot or its "equivalent non-dried form" without criminal sanction. Impaired driving laws were also updated to coincide with legalization.
Watch: Backbenchers: Don't Fear The Reefer. Story continues after video.
Canada is the first G7 nation and second country in the world, following Uruguay, to legalize the drug. It's a new industry that has attracted attention from deep-pocketed multinational companies looking to get in on a so-called green rush.
In August, American drinks giant Constellation Brands announced a $5-billion investment into licensed producer Canopy Growth, based in Smiths Falls, Ont.
Critics, including Longley, have concerns about producers and private companies' growing stake, owning patents to names and genetic strains cultivated in the black market. "The legalized marijuana movement has been hijacked by the licensed producers."
Longley has led the Marijuana Party since its founder, Marc-Boris St-Maurice, resigned and jumped ship to join the Liberals in 2004. The Liberals had a better shot at legalizing the drug, St-Maurice reasoned at the time. It may have taken 14 years, but that hunch turned out to be right.
But now with cannabis (mostly) being legally sold across the country, the fringe party has lost its central policy plank, forcing it to face a crisis of sorts while teetering on the brink of extinction. Membership numbers is a problem, so is money.
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Cannabis legalization stole the Marijuana Party's go-to call for action in fundraising campaigns. "We run our party on a broken shoestring budget and it's like more and more broken and shorter and shorter all the time," Longley says. "So I'm not sure if I'll be able to keep it registered, because it's trying to do something with nothing." Throughout the interview, he kept repeating: "We are totally insignificant."
The biggest challenge for the party now is to collect 250 members' signatures so it can be registered with Elections Canada. It's a humbling exercise for a party that at its peak ran 73 candidates in the 2000 election, winning 0.5 per cent of the popular vote.
With a year to go before the next federal election, he isn't sure if he can even get those 250 names. The party had a few hundred members signed up during the last election. Facing a short timeline to sort its identity, the party's lack of budget limited its growth. Longley is both the leader and chief agent of the Marijuana Party; and according to Elections Canada, chief agents can't run as a candidate for public office.
Despite the party's near-extinction, Longley is working to evolve his party's message to scrutinize marijuana's "rapid capitalization." One issue he spoke at length about was the government's introduction of two new criminal offences designed to deter giving or selling cannabis to youth and using young people to commit a crime related to the drug. Both carry penalties of up to 14 years in prison — pot-specific criminal statutes that didn't exist before legalization.
At least 500,000 Canadians have criminal records marked with simple possession charges, according to a Canadian Nurses Association study from 2014.
And despite the government's pledge to table legislation to streamline pot pardons for simple possession charges, Longley thinks more people are going to get in trouble because young people are still going to get their hands on cannabis.
"Like it never stopped them that it was completely criminal before. And it's not going to stop them now except that the people with bad luck who get caught providing it to them are going to get way worse penalties than before."
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Longley doesn't think the new laws and regulations governing the production and sale of pot will snuff out the black market for weed, contrary to the prime minister's insistence that it will. The federal government didn't reach out to him during the many rounds of consultations leading up to the landmark piece of legislation, he says.
Nearing 70, Longley says though he can't smoke herb like he used to, he's skeptical about the quality of the bud commercial producers are putting to market. There's still an opportunity for the black market to offer better quality marijuana at lower prices, he says. "People want good pot. They want to be able to buy good marijuana."
When asked why he thinks people should care about the Marijuana Party's fate, the counter-culture stalwart says its mere existence on the political spectrum gives Canadians an option to protest if they, like him, are "disgusted" over the current version of legalization.
"We don't agree with the cannabis industry being stolen from the people who made it and maintained it for decades, given to big international corporations to run with," he says.
But the reality is that the party has less money than ever. The rallying-cry tone in his voice shifts.
"I don't think we're going to stop that. It's gonna happen. It's already happened. It's just gonna get worse, faster, is how I see it," he says.
"We're like an amoeba on an elephant now."