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Is 'De-Normalizing' Cannabis Canada's New Form Of Prohibition?

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that he wanted to legalize marijuana to keep it away from kids and take profits away from the black market. But the head of his cannabis task force - Anne McLellan - appears determined to take things a step further: eliminating or at least significantly diminishing cannabis use through legalization.

That might sound like stoner paranoia, but McLellan's recent remarks suggest she sees legalization as a way to weed out cannabis use in Canada. She recently told Paula Simons of the Edmonton Journal what she wants to achieve through legalization.

"The government is not in the business of encouraging use. Most people who work and research in this area will tell you marijuana is not a benign substance. But alcohol is not a benign substance. Tobacco is not a benign substance....We want to de-normalize marijuana use, analogous to tobacco in that regard."

What is de-normalizing?

"De-normalize" is a strategy for eliminating tobacco use among youths and, by extension, adults. The concept of de-normalizing tobacco has been around for decades. In 1999, Anne M. Lavack - a researcher at the University of Winnipeg - wrote an article outlining the strategy.

"De-normalization of tobacco can be described as all the programs and actions undertaken to reinforce the fact that tobacco use is not a mainstream or normal activity in our society," Lavack wrote. "The primary job of a successful denormalization strategy...should be to further reduce the [overall] percentage of people who smoke. This can be achieved by urging current smokers to quit, and targeting adolescents and young adults with smoking prevention messages."

So de-normalizing marijuana would mean putting users back in the cannabis closet by prohibiting - or limiting in the case of tobacco - public consumption, preventing members of the marijuana industry from advertising their products, and making recreational marijuana use cost prohibitive through taxation.

It doesn't seem farfetched for the government to take that approach given that they have avoided discussing the economic benefits of legalization. Instead, officials have consistently described cannabis as a harmful substance that must be tightly controlled and restricted. So don't be surprised if the end of marijuana prohibition in Canada means you can only smoke overpriced cannabis at home after buying it in a generic package with no design or marketing features aside from the sort of frightening health warnings common on packages of cigarettes in Canada.

Would it work?

Now that we know what de-normalization means, we have to wonder if it would work with cannabis - a substance that has proven to have more medical benefits and fewer health risks than tobacco. Craig Jones - Executive Director of NORML Canada - doesn't think it will.

"As to 'de-nomalizing' cannabis - whatever that means - it's rather late in the day. That ship has sailed," he told Civilized. "The government will learn - if they don't already intuit it - that cannabis culture is very deeply embedded and won't be uprooted by legalization."

He argues that legalization will further normalize marijuana use as people push to grow their own cannabis at home and share the fruits of their labor.

"The government is going to learn that home production will rapidly become the norm among a large number of users - that it won't be suppressed, limited or prohibited. Furthermore, they will learn that the cannabis community is a sharing culture - cannabis users routinely gift and share their stash. That won't change with legalization. They'll just be more to share with, and gift to, friends."

Like the Canadian government, NORML doesn't want to see cannabis marketed toward youths. But doubts that strategies to keep marijuana away from minors will be more successful than attempts to restrict access to other substances.

"Of course we all want to limit trafficking to youth, but I expect we'll be as successful with cannabis as we have been with alcohol and tobacco," he told Civilized. "Still, legalization is the optimal option - particularly for a substance that never should have been criminalized in the first place."

Banner Image: Thousands of Canadians celebrate 420 in the square at Yonge and Dundas Streets in Toronto, Canada. ( /


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