Cannabis Policy in Canada: A Regulatory Guide

October 7, 2015 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ News

According to a recent CBC survey of 14,502 individuals, 56% of Canadians support cannabis legalization. The poll also shows that the majority (86%) are in favour of moderating the laws in some form.

Change is heavily favoured among advocates of all three major parties, with Liberal and NDP supporters at approximately 90% and Conservative enthusiasts at roughly 75%. Additionally, most respondents who prefer the Liberals and NDP favour legalization while individuals who identify with the Conservatives are evenly split between legalization and decriminalization.

An independent Forum Research survey and an Ipsos Reid poll conducted on behalf of the federal Department of Justice also present strong support for change. Hence, a common trend prevails: the vast majority of Canadians want cannabis laws to be softened.     

With the advent of legalization in a number of US states and an evolving medical marijuana industry in Canada, it appears that attitudes towards cannabis are shifting. If Canada decides to implement full-scale legalization, statutory rules will need to be crafted in a way that ensures public health and safety while enabling economic vitality. To achieve this, a cross-governmental approach will be required.

The first step in legalization will be for the Canadian federal government to repeal all cannabis provisions within the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Once this is complete, provinces and territories can develop legislation to tax and regulate the drug in a manner that addresses the following key issues:

Cannabis and Driving

  • The science on cannabis impairment is currently inconclusive as THC can remain in the blood for long periods after consumption, especially for heavier users. A lack of research is likely a significant reason for this uncertainty. If legalized, research can be enhanced with the aim of developing a reliable roadside impairment test.
  • For now, a THC concentration of 5 nanograms or higher per millilitre of blood, which is the limit in the US states of Washington and Colorado, can be incorporated into the Criminal Code of Canada and all provincial motor vehicle legislation. But until the science is more conclusive, Colorado is probably the optimal model. In that jurisdiction, motorists who are found to be above the limit can present evidence of not being intoxicated despite the test result.     

Restricting Access to Minors

Quality Assurance

  • To ensure product safety and consumer awareness, governments will need to introduce quality control measures for cannabis production, storage, and ingredient labelling.
  • Governments can use existing alcohol and tobacco laws as models for designing these measures and to create provisions that limit or restrict cannabis advertising.

Retail Management

  • Distribution and Sales must be controlled by local authorities
  • This can be done via government cannabis stores or, depending on the jurisdiction, within government liquor stores.  

Canadians are clearly ready for change, and although there are dangers with any drug, it seems irrational for cannabis to be prohibited while studies indicate that substance abuse costs and risk of dependency is much higher for alcohol and tobacco. Compared to alcohol tobacco, per user health care costs for cannabis are also quite low. Moreover, usage rates are not elevated in jurisdictions where cannabis rules are more lenient.

We of course do not want to promote the drug to children, but it’s hard to understand the argument that legalization will make cannabis more accessible to kids, particularly when a 2013 UNICEF study found that Canadian youth have the highest cannabis consumption rate among 29 developed countries. Anecdotally, I also suspect that children can obtain cannabis with more ease than alcohol or tobacco (I just can’t picture many illicit suppliers being concerned about age verification).  

Presently consumers face criminal justice penalties that result in substantial socio-economic costs. Furthermore, governments spend tens of millions of taxpayer dollars every year on enforcement to reduce cannabis supply and demand. Meanwhile, Canadian usage rates remain fairly steady and an underground market flourishes. Certainly decriminalization would be an improvement, particularly for consumers. But it would still result in lucrative production and distribution profits for organized crime, with such groups controlling 85% of the market in some regions. With decriminalization there would also be an ongoing absence of quality assurance.

It’s time to eradicate consumer punishment and criminal profiteering. We need a sensible approach to cannabis that minimizes risks to public health and safety and creates legitimate economic benefits, including enhancement of government tax revenue. To achieve these objectives, legalization is the best option.

Nearby, Washington and Colorado are managing successfully. Alaska and Oregon, both of which recently introduced legalization, will likely succeed as well. Meanwhile, the federal government in Canada remains committed to a reefer madness approach, even when a large majority of the population, including Conservative supporters, are clearly against it. Something is obviously amiss here, and if political will does not change, we will continue with a policy regime that is based on stigmas, myths, and discredited scientific notions.

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