The government of Canada on Thursday released a plan to legalize recreational marijuana use across the country by July 2018. With a solid Liberal majority in government, the plan is widely expected to become law, but it would leave the details of implementation, including commercial regulations, to individual provinces.
The bill’s backers framed it as an effort to reduce adolescent drug use and take profits out of the black market. “Criminal prohibition has failed to protect our kids and our communities,” Bill Blair, parliamentary secretary to the Justice Minister and one of the architects of the legislation, said at a news conference. The bill will “make Canada safer,” added Blair, a former Toronto police chief.
“Police forces spend between 2 and 3 billion dollars every year trying to deal with cannabis, yet Canadian teens are among the heaviest users in the Western world,” said Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale. “Criminals pocket 7 to 8 billion dollars in proceeds.”
Marijuana legalization was a campaign promise of Prime Minster Justin Trudeau. The bill needs to be approved by Parliament, but Trudeau’s Liberal Party commands a solid majority there. The measure has also received support from the country’s Conservative Party.
The legislation, titled “An Act respecting cannabis and to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the Criminal Code and other Acts”, would set a minimum age of 18 to purchase and use marijuana. That’s lower than the drinking age of 19 in most provinces. It’s also a departure from the norm in the United States, where states that have legalized recreational marijuana use have set the minimum age at 21.
Individuals would be allowed to possess up to 30 grams of marijuana for personal use, similar to the one-ounce standard in U.S. states where marijuana use is legal. Households would also be allowed to grow up to four marijuana plants.
While the bill would remove penalties for individual use and possession, it wouldn’t set up a nationwide system for selling marijuana commercially — those details would be left to individual provinces. In provinces that decline to set up a commercial framework, customers could order marijuana online from a federally licensed producer.
Finally, accompanying legislation would toughen penalties for driving under the influence of marijuana, alcohol and other drugs.
The bill would make Canada the second country in the world, after Uruguay, to fully legalize recreational marijuana use. In the Netherlands, marijuana use is generally tolerated, but it is not, strictly speaking, legal.
Legal marijuana in Canada, one of the United States’ strongest allies, could be a game changer for domestic marijuana policy discussions in the states. While eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana, it remains illegal at the federal level. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for state-legal marijuana businesses to use the banking system, receive tax breaks and otherwise operate without fear of federal interference.
By contrast, national legalization to the north could create a fertile environment for marijuana businesses to start up and operate, potentially giving Canadian companies a competitive edge over stateside businesses in the future. Domestic cannabis businesses are already involved in intense lobbying efforts to ease federal restrictions in the United States
While numerous pieces of bipartisan legislation have been introduced in Congress to address some of those issues or even to legalize marijuana completely, leaders in both parties have generally been wary of letting such provisions proceed. The Trump administration has taken a more skeptical position on marijuana reform than its predecessor, but the news out of Canada may complicate that position.
“With legalization in a growing number of our own states and now an entire major neighboring country ending prohibition, it’s going to be increasingly difficult for drug warriors in the Trump administration to meaningfully roll back our gains,” said Tom Angell of the pro-legalization group Marijuana Majority.
“It’s never been clearer than today that legal marijuana is the future," he said.
The bill has its skeptics. “This piece of legislation puts the Canadian family at risk,” said Pamela McColl of Smart Approaches to Marijuana Canada, an anti-legalization group. "Youth already think marijuana is harmless, and now we are giving them the government’s seal of approval. This risk will spill over into even younger kids."
But the bill’s backers contend that reducing underage use is one of their chief aims.
“As a former police officer, I know firsthand how easy it is for our kids to buy cannabis,” Blair said. “Today’s plan to legalize, strictly regulate and restrict access to cannabis will put an end to this. It will keep cannabis out of the hands of children and youth, and stop criminals from profiting from it.”