Parliament Hill 4-20 organizers predict record crowd after legalization

A celebration? Yes, but organizers say concerns remain about the government’s decisions on legalization rollout

Thousands of pro-pot protesters are expected on Parliament Hill this weekend for the first 4-20 weed day demonstration since Canada legalized recreational marijuana last fall.

The event has been a big draw in past years, but organizers say the folks who used to stay away because cannabis was illegal will be drawn to show up this time and celebrate.

While crowd estimates vary from previous years, Shawn Mac, a program director for 4-20 Ottawa, said he expects this year’s crowd to be more than double that from 2018.

“The crowd will be a little bit more diverse this year than it has been in most years,” Mac said. “Personally, I have lots of friends who have never attended for the simple reason that it’s not been legal and this year it is.”

But while celebrating will be on the agenda, organizers also say there is still an element of protest over a feeling that the federal government has work to do to fully implement legalization.

Concerns remain about the government’s decision to tax medicinal marijuana; legislation to expedite pardons for people previously convicted of simple pot possession is still in the early stages of debate; and provincial and municipal governments are grappling with retail sales and land use for growing, among other issues. The federal government also hasn’t yet legalized edible marijuana products and has six more months to set rules to do so.

Mac said he thinks the legalization has been a “boondoggle” and accuses the government of using misleading information to justify over-regulation that has helped large companies in the market.

Personal use of recreational marijuana became legal six months ago, fulfilling Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 2015 election promise.

Kelly Coulter, a cannabis policy adviser based in British Columbia, said Canada is helping change global attitudes and policies as the first G7 nation to legalize pot. She said she plans to be on Parliament Hill on Saturday to celebrate.

Coulter said she believes there were a lot of people who voted Liberals in 2015 solely on this issue, though quantifying that is hard.

READ MORE: Smokers talk pot rules at annual 4-20 event

With a federal election this October, she isn’t sure where those votes will go, but also doesn’t think it will be a ballot issue.

David Coletto, chief executive at Abacus Data, agreed. Polling done by his firm around the time of legalization last fall showed more than two-thirds of Canadians were perfectly fine with pot being legal. While Conservative supporters were the least likely to be OK with it, support was still above 50 per cent.

“There is no wedge here,” said Coletto. “I don’t see legalization itself having any impact on how people are viewing the government.”

Pollster Nik Nanos said at most, cannabis will be a “nuisance issue” for the Liberals from people irritated by some parts of the legalization roll out.

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has said he would not roll back legalization entirely, but that a Conservative government would look at what has happened since legalization and make any changes they see fit. That could include, for example, not allowing people to grow pot at home. The current law allows up to four pot plants at home using seeds purchased from an authorized dealer.

Allan Rewak, the former executive director of the Cannabis Council of Canada, said little has changed since legalization except where people can purchase pot.

“This industry is about migrating an existing consumer from an illicit market to a legal one,” he said. “We have seen really no corresponding social harms, we didn’t see spikes in auto accidents, we didn’t see dispensaries robbed.”

Rewak’s biggest issue is the continued taxation of medicinal marijuana.

New Democrats plan to campaign on another issue: a promise to delete all former convictions for simple pot possession.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale introduced legislation in March to expedite pardons for previous convictions, waiving both the five year waiting period and application fee. The change won’t delete criminal records.

The Liberals intend to limit debating time on Goodale’s bill in a bid to get it passed into law before summer when MPs will vacate Parliament Hill and prepare for the fall campaign.

John Akpata, peace officer for the Marijuana Party of Canada, wants the records issue wrapped up before the election because right now he thinks people with convictions are being “held hostage and being used as bargaining chips” to get them to vote a certain way.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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