Sometime in the near future, perhaps as soon as next year, adults throughout Canada will be able to legally grow, purchase, and consume cannabis for recreational use. In April 2017, the Liberal Party of Canada, led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, outlined a plan to legalize adult recreational use of cannabis, with a target date of sometime around July 1, 2018—the Canada Day holiday—for recreational sales to begin. When that happens, Canada will become only the second country, after Uruguay, to completely legalize marijuana and the first G7 country to do so.
The hope is that the move will curtail some of the problems the US is familiar with: People are being incarcerated for minor drug offenses. Black-market pot is governed by drug cartels. Young people have easier access to it than they would if it were tightly regulated like alcohol or tobacco.
During a Facebook live interview with VICE Canada in April, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that though he’s not a cannabis user, he realizes that the current approach isn’t working and is hurting Canadian citizens. One thing Canadian politicians have learned from meeting with lawmakers from American states that have legalized cannabis is that government needs to be more involved. “Colorado is looking at it more from a commercial mindset and already thinking about profits and revenue,” Trudeau said, “but we’re approaching it completely from a public-health viewpoint.”
Under Canada’s proposed new plan, adults will be able to possess 30 grams of cannabis, or just more than an ounce. Each household will be allowed to grow four plants. The federal government will regulate the production of cannabis, issuing licenses to growers, but provinces will be in charge of distribution and retail sales. Although the government will no doubt price and tax cannabis, there is nothing in the plan yet about how that will happen or what the prices might be. There will be no edible sales for now, he says, but edibles will be dealt with in the future when the country “gets it right,” according to Trudeau.
The minimum age for adult purchase will be 18, although each province has the opportunity to set its own age limits. The plan will severely limit and enforce all advertising and targeting to children. Penalties for illegal sales and distribution or for selling to a minor are substantial—up to 14 years in prison. If you’re caught driving while impaired—police are testing a screening device that detects THC in the saliva of suspected drivers—you could face up to 10 years in prison.
The plan follows the recommendations of a task force convened after the 2015 elections and still faces parliamentary approval. Trudeau’s Liberal Party controls the House of Commons, and the even-more-liberal New Democratic Party is backing the plan, too, while conservatives who ran against legalization are in the minority.
Larry Heinzlmeir, a marketing VP at Invictus MD, a cannabis company in Vancouver that recently became an official Licensed Producer, says that security and quality control are major components of the legislation. “Part of the process is to ensure that this new undertaking will get us away from the black market,” he says. “There is a need for a secure process to ensure quality with no contaminants. It’s restrictive but very secure.”
International cannabis policy is still governed by the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which, in 1961, added cannabis to the list of drugs that were to be eliminated from the earth. Canada is one of 185 countries to sign the international drug protocols that prohibit the legalization of marijuana.
That hasn’t happened so far, and at least 15 countries have already eased laws for medical use of cannabis, while others are seriously considering decriminalization or outright legalization. Italy, for example, has decriminalized cannabis and made it legal for medical or religious purposes. In Spain, certain communities and cities allow cannabis clubs and tolerate single or small-scale grows. Jamaica has made possession a civil citation and fine instead of a crime. The Mexican Supreme Court, in a 4–1 vote, has declared that marijuana prohibition “violates the right to free development of one’s personality.”
So the chances of punishment from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime or any other signatory country complaining that Canada is breaking treaties aren’t very high. The US, which uses the excuse that since cannabis is still illegal on a federal level, it is in compliance with the international treaties, would be perhaps the most hypocritical to complain unless Canadian pot were to be smuggled south, which is unlikely since there’s plenty of cannabis down here, even in states where it’s illegal.
Canada could also follow the example of Bolivia, which got around the treaties a few years ago when it decided to allow coca leaf chewing. It withdrew from the 1961 treaty and rejoined with a “reservation” allowing the use of coca leaves within its own borders. The move could have been blocked by one-third of the parties to the treaty, but only 15 of the 185 signatories joined in opposition.
Canada already has a medical marijuana program, with most Canadian patients ordering and receiving their medical marijuana through the mail. Despite dispensary storefronts being illegal, many operate relatively freely and openly due to local law enforcement tolerance in certain provinces. For now, all medical regulations will remain in effect and will be reviewed as legalization proceeds.
Heinzlmeir says there is some legitimate confusion right now about the many nuances in how the law will actually work, but that all parties and stakeholders are being encouraged to join in the conversation. “Those are questions we are waiting for answers to,” he says. “In the meantime, the provinces are being engaged to work through this.”