Canada Paves a New Path to Legal Cannabis


On the heels of the passage of Canada’s legalization bill C-45 and the government’s announcement that recreational cannabis would be legal in Canada on October 17, Health Canada last week announced its regulations for the new law.  

While Canadian authorities learned from state regulators’ experiences in the US, there are some significant differences in the American and Canadian approaches to legalization that will provide additional evidence of alternative regulatory frameworks and the implications of, for example, a lower use age limit, and government-run cannabis sales. (Uruguay was the first country to legalize, but it has a much smaller population.)

The main difference between the two countries when it comes to legalization, Anne McLellan, former Canadian deputy prime minister and chair of Canada’s task force on cannabis legalization, told Cannabis Wire, is that “in Canada, it is driven by public policies while in the US, market forces.”

Andrew Freedman, who was appointed by the governor of Colorado in 2014 to oversee the state’s launch of the first legal recreational use cannabis sales in the US, echoed this sentiment.

“Canada has learned major lessons from what I’ve seen in the United States and are legalizing under a public health framework to limit short-term profiteering,” Freedman, who now runs a cannabis regulation consulting firm, told Cannabis Wire.

While the ability to limit profiteering has not yet been tested in Canada, lawmakers certainly emphasized public health, even including an entirely separate bill focused on stoned driving. Here are a few important components of Canada’s approach to legalization as the country moves forward at the helm of the global cannabis industry.

I. It’s a national law

This one may be obvious, but it is also important. While the number of states that have decided to legalize cannabis has grown to nine, plus Washington, D.C., they are moving forward without federal guidance. Legalization is unfolding in America from the bottom up—an approach that brings with it a host of issues as a result of conflicting federal and state laws.

In Canada, the central government in Ottawa opted for a top-down strategy. Canada’s process involved multiple layers of government (federal, provincial, municipal), and while there are strong differences in preferred approach among those layers, the national approach means more cohesion, comparably. For example, licenses to grow marijuana in Canada come from the federal government, there is a national approach to stoned driving, and cannabis tax revenue is shared between the federal and the provincial governments.

II. It’s a public business (for some)

In the US, market forces are bigger drivers of the health and education sectors than they are in Canada, and the same goes for the cannabis industry. While some Canadian provinces have opted for government-owned stores to sell recreational marijuana, there is only one government-run cannabis shop in the US, in Washington state.

C-45 provides that provinces and territories may take responsibility for developing, implementing, maintaining and enforcing systems to oversee the distribution and retail sale of cannabis. In the province of Ontario, for example, the provincially-owned liquor store called LCBO (short for Liquor Control Board of Ontario) will be responsible for selling cannabis—— although in a separate store. For McLellan, this cannabis approach reflects the provinces’ approach to alcohol. “Culturally, Canadians are used to it,” she told Cannabis Wire. “Alcohol is a big revenue generator for the provinces and I’m expecting the same thing from legal cannabis.” Every Canadian province or territory has developed its own retail plan: nine opted for government-controlled cannabis sales (either online, storefront, or both), while only a handful have opened the door to private companies. In terms of taxes, Ottawa keeps 25 percent of cannabis sales tax revenues, while the provinces get 75 percent; the maximum Ottawa can get from any single province is $100 million.

III. Home-growing is allowed

Up until the final Senate reading of C-45, lawmakers fought over the provincial right to forbid home-grown  marijuana. That amendment was ultimately taken out of the bill after being added in by the Senate, and legislation allows individuals to grow up to four plants per home. The province of Quebec still decided to ban home-growing of cannabis, and the question will probably end up being ruled in courts. Quebec’s safety minister, Lucie Charlebois, told Radio-Canada after C-45 passed that Quebec’s law will prevail. McLellan believes that banning home-growing of marijuana makes little sense. “It is legal to grow tobacco or grapes at home, and it will be the same for cannabis,” she told Cannabis Wire.

It’s worth noting that few lawmakers in the US—even those in favor of legalization—would compare cannabis to a benign, unfermented grape. Still, the right to home grow for recreational use in states where legalization passed is ubiquitous with the exception of Washington, where home growing requires a license and is solely for medical use. In Colorado, Freedman explains, the initial legislation allowed for six plants per person, but that wording allowed a single household with many adults to have dozens of plants—the sort of unregulated sprawl feared by home growing opponents in Canada—so a limit of 12 plants per Colorado household took effect at the start of this year.  

IV. Age limits are lower

C-45 set the minimum age to consume cannabis at 18, the national drinking age, but gave provinces the right to “set access at a higher age as they deem appropriate for regulating adult consumption.” Still, no province went above 19.

The Canadian government explained this decision on its website: “Setting a limit that is too high would continue to encourage young adults to seek out cannabis on the illegal market.” In 2013, 25 percent of Canadians age 15-24 reported past-year use of marijuana, which McLellan calls a “failure of prohibition.” Still, there are public health experts in the country, such as Chris Summerville, head of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada, who have expressed concerns on the possible negative impact on the brain development of users under 25.

V. Stoned driving is a national priority

Impaired driving under the influence of cannabis is not legal, no matter where you live. But in states with legal cannabis, there are different approaches to stoned driving, from what constitutes impairment to prevention education. In Colorado and Washington, for example, police officers use blood tests to detect traces of THC in a drivers’ body. In Vermont last May, a Senate committee blocked a bill to let police use saliva tests, and California is still conducting clinical trials for a breathalyzer. Meanwhile, Canada opted for oral fluid screening after a successful pilot project. C-46, which is C-45’s sister bill that will deal with impaired driving, hasn’t passed yet, but Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has reminded Canadians that driving under the influence of THC remains illegal. 

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