Canadian tension blunted by cannabis legalization

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It's been a while since I smoked a joint, long enough to know that's now not the commonest way to phrase it, nor the only familiar way to do it. But as I stirred Wednesday morning and attended to the news, it dawned on me that any weed or pot (or grass, in an ancient vocabulary) that I once hid in various drawers, no longer required concealment. Out of curiosity I went looking and indeed some withered joints were still there.

In my case, the caution related to political views and activities, including a period where I worked for a union and acquired some strike-related criminal charges. Plus the normal (for then) sense of phones bugged and files compiled.

Lest you consider this sheer paranoia, I'll add that once, after moving into my current house, I retrieved the papers from the porch (sigh) and saw on the Globe's front page, a report that my dining room had been bugged by CSIS, since it's where an alternate magazine held editorial meetings.

So it was odd to abruptly feel I no longer needed to secrete my "stash." I'd lost awareness of it but it never occurred to me on any level that it might some day be unnecessary. Even more surprising is that something similar was felt across Canada by people who mostly haven't shared my experiences. It was more like sharing the 1972 Russia-Canada series or Crosby's golden goal.

A middle-aged guy in a baseball cap outside a store somewhere said, "It feels good." Who knew so many people would feel relief? "It's phenomenal. It's almost surreal. I woke up today and I was like, holy sh-t, today is the day. This is actually happening."

People don't like to feel bad about what they're doing for harmless pleasure. Yet an entire population, who didn't see themselves as oppositional, had felt under surveillance and opprobrium. A nation with an unseen finger wagging in its face for almost a century. It was normal for so long that only at its end, with the collective exhale, did the stress appear -- like removing tight shoes or not banging your head on the wall.

I know the pressures varied according to demographics and the era, but I think the general guilt-inducing mechanisms are still active. CBC News ran a crawl all day saying, "Nanos poll shows 62 per cent of Canadians won't consume any" -- as if the rest were still a tawdry minority.

It used to be more overt: when LCBO stores had the esthetics of refugee detention centres and "taverns" had a separate entrance for "ladies and escorts." The new pot outlets in Montreal, somebody said, look like The Apple Store: cool and welcoming.

That counts as progress, I think, in a battle that seems eternal. Wilhelm Reich thought that sexual repression fed "The Mass Psychology of Fascism" in the 1930s. New Left guru Herbert Marcuse asked if there could be "nonrepressive desublimation."

Whatever that meant (in the 1960s) it had to do with the right to feel good about feeling good. By the 1980s, I remember a foot soldier of the "new right" asking, "Where has the tension in this society gone?" He felt guilty about not feeling guilty. I think this week we saw another case in the context of our own times, and I don't expect the dynamic to die off.

The transition also underlined how rarely governments do something that genuinely alters people's daily lives. Mostly, they find ways not to do things, like electoral reform. It made you kind of proud of Canada (or Cannada), while wondering what else might be going on in Uruguay (the only country to beat us to it) that we don't know about. Still, it was essentially negative. Medicare, decades ago, was a positive example.

I'm aware there's a widespread presumption that we live in a society that has lost its "moral compass." This somehow coexists with a panic over rampant political correctness -- showing how fluid moral turbulence can be.

What usually outlasts any such cataloguing, I'd say, is a hardy sense of guilt, which, if you could liquefy it, would probably fill global energy needs many times over while solving the climate crisis. In that perspective, it's been an interesting week.

Image: Province of British Columbia/Flickr

This article was originally appeared in the Toronto Star

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