Cannabis Legalization in Canada
On October 17, 2018, with the coming into force of the Cannabis Act (short title for An Act respecting cannabis and to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the Criminal Code and other Acts),Canada will become the first developed nation to fully legalize the growing, purchase, sale and use of medical and recreational cannabis. The Cannabis Act legalizes cannabis possession, home growing, and sales for adults. The federal government will oversee remaining criminal sanctions (for, say, selling to minors) and the licensing of producers, while provincial governments will manage sales, distribution, and related matters — as such, provinces will be able to impose tougher rules, such as raising the minimum age. The statute largely follows recommendations made by a federal task force on cannabis legalization.
None of this may seem too shocking in the US, where nine states have legalized cannabis for recreational use and 29 states have allowed it for medicinal purposes. What sets Canada apart, is that it’s doing this as a country.
Canada, like the US, is part of international drug treaties that explicitly ban legalizing cannabis. Although activists have been pushing to change these treaties for years, they have failed so far — and that means Canada will, in effect, be in violation of international law in moving to legalize. The US argues it’s still in compliance with the treaties because cannabis is a prohibited substance under federal law, even though some states have legalized it.
For Canada’s ruling party, this fulfills a major campaign promise. When Trudeau’s Liberal Party was elected in 2015, one of the main promises Trudeau ran on was to legalize cannabis. “We will legalize, regulate, and restrict access to marijuana,” the Liberal Party declared on its campaign website. “Canada’s current system of marijuana prohibition does not work. It does not prevent young people from using marijuana and too many Canadians end up with criminal records for possessing small amounts of the drug.”
In moving forward, the Canadian government is now walking a fine line: It’s hoping to legalize cannabis to clamp down on the black market for cannabis and provide a safe outlet for adults, but it’s risking making cannabis more accessible to kids and people with drug use disorders. Whether Canada is successful in its legalization attempts will depend on the balance it strikes between these concerns. Depending on how it pulls this off, it may provide a model to other countries interested in legalization, including the US.
The Cannabis Act restricts marketing and advertising. The restrictions should stop cannabis companies from marketing their product in a way that targets, say, children or people who already heavily use cannabis.
The Cannabis Act lets provinces entirely handle the distribution and sales of cannabis — up to letting provincial governments directly manage and staff all cannabis dispensaries by themselves.
The promise of government-run cannabis dispensaries is that they could be better for public health. As the argument goes, government agencies that run dispensaries will be more mindful of public health and safety, while private companies are only going to be interested in maximizing sales, even if that means making prices very low or selling to minors and people with drug use disorders.
Previous research found that states in America that maintained a government-operated monopoly for alcohol kept prices higher, reduced youth access, and reduced overall levels of use — all benefits to public health.
This is about balancing the risks and benefits of legalization: Maybe legalization is the better approach on net compared to prohibition, but that doesn’t mean that for-profit, private companies must be given free rein in the market.
This isn’t important just to Canada. If Canada shows that these policies — and the many other quirks that will make it different from the US approach — are the right approach to legalization, it could provide a legalization model for the rest of the world that’s very different from what America has offered so far.
No doubt there are millions of interested people keeping a close watch on how Canada develops this marketplace.
So, what does the legalization of Cannabis mean to Canadians? Here are the answers to a few of the most commonly asked questions, taken directly from the Government of Canada website on cannabis legalization.
How much weed can I have?
Adults can carry up to 30g of dried cannabis (or its equivalent) in a “public space”, which means that’s all you can buy at any one time. Note that “public space” includes your personal vehicle. If you’re caught out in public with more than 30g, you can face up to five years in prison.
Can I bake it into brownies?
You are free to consume your cannabis recreationally in any manner you see fit, so long as you keep it away from children. (New Brunswick will also require you to store your weed in a locked room or container, not unlike a firearm.) But you won’t be able to buy pre-made edibles or other cannabis extracts until exactly one year after the Cannabis Act comes into effect, i.e. on October 17, 2019.
Can I drive high?
No! This is a bad idea for several reasons, foremost being that it is both dangerous and illegal. Under the Liberals’ proposed inclusion of stoned driving under the Criminal Code, Bill C-46, THC levels of 5 nanograms per millilitre of blood are penalized in three tiers: a minimum fine of $1,000 for the first offence; minimum 30 days imprisonment for a second offence; and a minimum of 120 days in jail for the third and any subsequent offenses. These penalties get significantly steeper if you maim or kill anybody, from two years to life behind bars. Less than 5ng but more than 2.5ng will face a fine of up to $1,000.
Proving cannabis impairment is more difficult. Unlike booze, there is no breathalyzer for pot, nor is there a clear consensus about how high is too high to drive. Alcohol is metabolized at a standard rate, but THC affects users differently depending on their age, genetic background, size, history of use and method of ingestion, and remains detectable in urine for days, weeks or months after.
Currently, police officers can only order a standardized field sobriety test to drivers who they suspect may be intoxicated. If the driver fails, they can demand a further 12-step drug recognition expert evaluation, who then gauges impairment and orders further blood or saliva tests. C-46 would grant them the power to do mandatory breathalyzer testing on any lawfully stopped car, and they can demand roadside testing of oral fluid if they suspect a driver is high. They can also pre-emptively demand blood samples if they order a DRE evaluation. (It is worth mentioning that a CBC investigation found DRE testing was unscientific, roughly as accurate as a coin flip and prone to false arrests.)
Bill C-46 would also increase maximum sentencing for impaired driving offenses, from a minimum of 14 years to life in prison in cases causing bodily harm or death. These heightened penalties mean impaired driving offenses now fall under the category of “serious criminality” in Canadian law. This means foreign nationals with a previous conviction can be barred from entering the country, and permanent residents in Canada charged with a single impaired driving offense could potentially face deportation.
I live in a rural area and my neighbour wants to buy a couple grams from me to save a trip to town. Is that OK?
Absolutely not. Unless you are a licensed retailer, it is illegal for one adult to sell cannabis to another. Anyone found selling cannabis without a license faces fines up to $5,000 or up to 14 years in prison. You are, however, allowed to freely share your drugs with your friends.
Can I give some to the bright and earnest 16-year-old next door in desperate need of escape from their broken home and/or crushing suburban ennui?
Providing a minor with even so much as the shake from the bottom of your bag risks you a $5,000 fine, or up to 14 years in jail.
Can I grow my own?
Federal guidelines allow recreational users to grow up to four plants per household, up to a meter tall. Most provinces have acceded to this suggestion, with some (like British Columbia) stipulating that the plants must be grown in a secure location out of public view.
In Manitoba and Quebec, however, home growing is illegal. Landlords in some provinces are also pushing for the right to ban tenants from growing cannabis in their rental properties.
Also: do not move your plants while they’re budding or flowering! Appearing in a public space with a blooming cannabis plant nets you a fine up to $5,000, or five years behind bars.
Can I smoke weed at work?
Your employer has final authority on drug policy in the workplace. Legalization isn’t anarchy. If you can’t stagger into work after a liquid lunch at the pub, don’t expect to spark a spliff on your smoke break. Given the difficulties involved with conclusively testing for cannabis impairment, however, enforcing workplace cannabis policies could prove contentious.
The rules are different if you use medicinal cannabis. Employers are required by law to accommodate medicinal users the same as they would anyone else with a disability or medical condition requiring prescription drugs. This rarely implies carte blanche to smoke on the job, however. Consult your employer for details.
Can I smoke in my house?
Cannabis faces most of the same restrictions as public smoking, with additional proscriptions against public intoxication. In many parts of Canada, your home may be the only place you can legally smoke pot in peace.
Unless you’re renting. Many provinces (including Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario) are moving to grant landlords the power to ban smoking weed in their residences as part of the lease, in the same way that they can ban tobacco.