Cannabis is about to become legal in Canada. This is a big deal because Canada is only the second country in the world to do this.
The Cannabis Act—passed in June of this year—will go into effect on October 17, 2018, and it will allow people to legally possess, use, and grow cannabis. Want to know more about how and why Canada is legalizing cannabis, and exactly what will be permitted? Keep reading.
Canada is making history with its new law. While some countries allow medicinal marijuana, the use of cannabis is otherwise against the law in most places. In the United States, it’s legal in some states, however it remains prohibited under federal law. Some countries have decriminalized cannabis, meaning that penalties have been reduced or eliminated. However, in most places it’s classified as an illegal drug. Other than Canada, Uruguay is the only country in the world that has legalized cannabis. It did so in 2013.
When it ends on October 17, Canada’s prohibition of cannabis will have lasted almost a hundred years. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, cannabis was banned in 1923, with no prior public debate, and in fact this plant was largely unknown to most Canadians at that time. The people of Canada did gradually start to learn about cannabis though, and despite the ban, recreational use became increasingly popular by the 1960s. In response, the federal government created the Le Dain Commission to study the use of cannabis. In 1972, the commission recommended that the possession of cannabis be decriminalized, however the report was largely ignored, and cannabis remained widely used, but against the law. Statistics Canada reports that in 2017, Canadians spent about $5.7 billion on cannabis, mostly for non-medical purposes.
Hemp and Medical Marijuana in Canada
The country did eventually make an exception for the medical use of cannabis. In 2001, the government enacted the Marihuana for Medical Access Regulations (MMAR). Under these regulations, patients who had the authorization of a health care practitioner were allowed to use dried marijuana for medical purposes. They could either buy the marijuana from Health Canada (the government department responsible for public health), grow it themselves, or designate someone to grow it for them. Over time, there have been some changes to the medical marijuana program. In 2013, the government enacted the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR), which created a licensed commercial industry to produce and distribute medical marijuana. In 2016, regulations were updated again with the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations (ACMPR), after a court ruled that medical marijuana patients should have the right to use other cannabis products—such as cannabis oil—in addition to dried marijuana.
The implementation of the 2018 Cannabis Act will result in even more changes to the medical marijuana program. The government stresses that it will continue to maintain a separate system for medical marijuana use. However, it also states that the new cannabis law will result in some changes, such as more options and more competitive prices for medical marijuana patients.
Like medical marijuana, hemp was also banned for a long time in Canada. The ban started in 1938 under the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act. In 1961, the government began allowing limited hemp production for scientific research, however it wasn’t until 1998 that commercial production was legalized, under the Industrial Hemp Regulation Program. A Canadian government website explains that laws were changed for a few different reasons: the country needed alternative fiber sources, a hemp industry had the potential to create new jobs, and research had shown that it was possible to grow hemp without also growing marijuana. Hemp production is strictly regulated by Health Canada, and industrial hemp plants must contain 0.3 percent or less THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). Growers also need to obtain a government license in order to cultivate or process hemp, and must use approved seed varieties.
So, Exactly What Will Be Legal on October 17?
The Canadian Justice Department explains what will happen when the new cannabis law comes into force on October 17. According to the Cannabis Act, adults age 18 or older will be allowed to possess up to 30 grams of dried legal cannabis in public, or the equivalent in non-dried form. They can also share that cannabis with other adults. Adults may buy dried cannabis, fresh cannabis, or cannabis oil from a retailer who is provincially licensed, or in some places they will be able to buy it online, from a federally-licensed producer. Finally, adults will be allowed to grow up to 4 cannabis plants per residence for their personal use. They must use licensed seed or seedlings. As long as they don’t use solvents to make concentrated products, they are allowed to make cannabis products like foods and drinks at home. The sale of cannabis concentrates and cannabis edibles will not be legalized on October 17. The government estimates that this will happen in about a year.
While these are the official rules under the Cannabis Act, depending on where you live in Canada, the laws may be different. This is because every territory and province will be able to set its own laws about cannabis, such as the legal minimum age for use, where cannabis can be sold, and how much is allowed per person. A government website has links to the individual provincial and territorial websites regarding cannabis policies.
It’s important to remember that while cannabis use and possession will be legal in some parts of Canada, it will remain illegal to take cannabis across any of the country’s international borders. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) recently issued a statement regarding Canada’s upcoming legalization. The agency stresses that regardless of Canada’s laws (or individual U.S. state laws), it is illegal under U.S. federal law to possess, produce, sell, or distribute marijuana. It warns, “Crossing the border or arriving at a U.S. port of entry in violation of this law may result in denied admission, seizure, fines, and apprehension.”
There are worries that people who use cannabis legally in Canada may run into problems trying to cross into the United States, even if they are not carrying cannabis with them. This is because, in addition to stressing that cannabis is illegal in the United States, CBP says that a person who admits to using a controlled substance may be denied entry into the United States. The agency states, “Any arriving alien who is determined to be a drug abuser or addict, or who is convicted of, admits having committed, or admits committing, acts which constitute the essential elements of a violation of (or an attempt or conspiracy to violate) any law or regulation of a State, the United States, or a foreign country relating to a controlled substance, is inadmissible to the United States.”
Why Legalize Cannabis?
The Canadian Government explains that there are a number of reasons behind the decision to legalize cannabis. It is hoped that legalization will help stop the use of this substance by youth, reduce the size of the illegal cannabis market, and protect the health and safety of the public by enforcing quality and safety regulations for cannabis products.
The protection of youth is seen as particularly important. Following the passage of the bill to legalize, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted, “It’s been too easy for our kids to get marijuana - and for criminals to reap the profits. Today, we change that.” Under the new regulations, there will be strict penalties for anybody who gives or sells cannabis to youth. There will also be severe penalties for packaging or promoting cannabis products in a way designed to appeal to youth.
By allowing adults to legally possess and use cannabis, advocates also hope that the criminal justice system will be able to focus its resources on other things. The Justice Department explains that cannabis-related criminal activity currently uses up a significant percentage of criminal justice system resources. For example, it says that 23,000 cannabis-related charges were made in 2016, and that more than half of Canada’s reported drug offenses are related to cannabis. Many people believe that the majority of adult cannabis users pose little threat to the general population, and that criminal justice resources would be better used on other types of crimes.
Disagreement Over the Future
Opinions differ on how legalization will affect Canada and the rest of the world. There are many critics. Some believe that because individual provinces and territories will be able to make their own laws about cannabis, the result will be a confusing maze of differing regulations. A new future app has reportedly even been trademarked. Called, “Canna Do This?” it will help people navigate these laws. Other critics argue that there is already a lack of enforcement of cannabis laws in Canada, and worry that new regulations will likewise not be properly enforced. For instance, one commentator asks, “Whether the laws of the future will be taken more seriously than those of the present is the question.”
However, there are also many optimists. Some hope that legalization will help change public attitudes towards the often-maligned cannabis plant, reducing the stigma that many people attach to its use, and fueling an increased openness about the use of cannabis for health and wellness. Others are optimistic that a legal cannabis industry will provide jobs and other economic benefits. Finally, advocates of legalization elsewhere in the world are hopeful that if Canada’s experience goes smoothly, it will serve as a guide that will allow other countries to follow in Canada’s footsteps in the future. Canada is only the second country in the world to do this, so nobody knows for sure what will happen. However, all around the world, people are eagerly watching to see what unfolds.