Cannabis has been legal for six weeks in Canada, but that hasn’t stopped many from feeling shunned or as though their use is still stigmatized. (Thought Catalog/Unsplash)

Marijuana may be legal across Canada, but is it publicly accepted in Chilliwack?

Local cannabis user speaks out about the lingering stigma surrounding cannabis

On October 17, 2018, Canada became the second country in the world, behind Uruguay, to federally legalize the consumption of cannabis, ending nearly a century of prohibition. But six weeks later, many cannabis users are wondering what’s different, if anything.

“Nothing’s really changed—it’s all the same, and I hate the stigma (that’s still attached to smoking cannabis),” said Connie Sanders*.

In 1908, Canada enacted the Opium Act, which saw the criminalization of morphine, opium, and cocaine use. And amidst mindsets that believed in such things as reefer madness and the marijuana menace, cannabis was added to the Confidential Restricted List of the Narcotics Drug Act Amendment Bill in 1923.

READ MORE: Are you ready for marijuana to be legal Oct. 17?

And there it stayed until the Liberal Party enacted the Cannabis Act in June, 2018. But legalizing cannabis usage has been on the minds of Canadians for decades.

Since the late 1990s, public opinion polls have continued to show more and more agreement with the statement, ‘Smoking marijuana should not be a criminal offense.’ In 2001, medical marijuana was legalized, and by June 2017, seven out of 10 Canadians were in favour of legalization. And perhaps most recently, a survey conducted in January of 2018 showed at least 23 per cent of Canadians admitted to using cannabis within the previous 12 months.

Yet now that smoking a joint is as legal as smoking a cigarette, or drinking a glass of wine, Sanders—who’s married with two children—says she’s not noticing much acceptance, which she says is strange, considering how many years it’s been somewhat culturally acceptable.

“There’s still lots of mystery behind (marijuana),” said Dr. Steven Esau, manager of the Fraser Region Youth Addiction Centre.

“The lack of knowledge of what’s behind cannabis and what it does to the human body … (may be part of) people’s hesitancy in accepting (it). We don’t totally know its magnitude of affect on the development of the brain.”

But affect the brain it does, as Esau continued on to explain that cannabis is fat-soluble, which allows it to cross the blood-brain barrier.

“And the marijuana we have now is different than what they had in the ’70s. It’s far more potent. So maybe not knowing the full grasp of what it could do to a developing brain (worries people).”

That may explain why Sanders had a mom pick up her child after a play date, “and we haven’t seen that kid since,” she said sadly as she watched her youngest play in the living room.

It wasn’t that she had been smoking in front of the children, rather the scent of cannabis was present in her home, but, she says, the smell tends to linger.

“I live in the cannabis world: I eat it, smoke it, and rub it on myself … (almost) 24 hours a day. I smell like it? I always smell like it, so they can’t (judge based just) on that. People (seem to) get offended by its strong smell—even if it hasn’t been smoked.”

READ MORE: Chilliwack’s largest ever marijuana grow-op case finally over with no verdict

It’s like the disdain for marijuana use has been ingrained in our culture and everyone has an opinion on those who use it.

“But an opinion is yours, and free to have, but it’s not part of the law,” said RCMP spokesperson, Mike Rail.

Which is why the Royal Canadian Mounted Police began training in regards to dealing with cannabis prior to legislation being passed this October.

The point is no longer whether or not you agree with the consumption of cannabis, says Rail, it’s now about the application and enforcement of our country’s laws, which no longer bans cannabis use for any reason.

”And as the laws change, society (needs to) change and (we) have to do what (we) can to (deal with those changes) … but there are going to be growing pains in any (situation) like this.

“It’s not a matter of just flipping a switch, it’s the way we’re going as a society,” continued Rail. “You learn to work within that society, and it’s new, but you’ll learn.”

And that’s not just for police officers, but members of the public in general: “We’re all the same, so now we evolve (to culturally accept) cannabis,” added the seasoned officer.

“We (also) need to research it,” said Esau. People need to “really engage in the research to see what the long-term effects are, and (whether legalization) was a good move or not. The more research we do, the more knowledge that could be transferred to the public” to possibly assuage the lingering issues they have with the former narcotic.

But Sanders says she isn’t so sure that it’s that simple for everybody.

“I have to say that there’s still an underground lifestyle (surrounding cannabis use). I know so many moms who smoke, who get together in groups and smoke while watching their kids … but guaranteed I’ve lost friends because I’m so open about my (cannabis usage).”

And while Sanders says she tries her “best to be very honest from the beginning” of any new relationship, especially one involving her children, she’s still meeting resistance to her usage of marijuana.

“So what’s different, really? Not much except it gives me more power in my chest so if I’m somewhere and I’m not feeling well, now I can (legally) say, ‘I’m going to smoke a joint,’ but I know people will still stare.”

And stare they do. Sanders says she does her best to obey all public smoking laws, yet still bears witness to mothers pulling their children down sidewalks away from her, or receives snide comments from people while in public spaces.

“Why can’t it be accepted like going to have a drink of wine?” Sanders asked rhetorically. “Personally, I’d much rather smoke than drink. Why can’t we be like Amsterdam where it’s just so accepted and normal with (marijuana) plants growing in public gardens.”

*Name has been changed to protect the identity of her children.

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