Cannabis regulation is coming to Canada — here are five things to know

Canada may become the second country to implement legalization of marijuana nationally. Nazlee Maghsoudi, with the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, explains the thinking behind such legislation. 

By: /
December 16, 2015
Master Grower Ryan Douglas waters marijuana plants in a growing room at Tweed Marijuana Inc in Smith's Falls, Ontario, February 20, 2014. REUTERS/Blair Gable
Nazlee Maghsoudi

Knowledge Translation Manager at the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy

If you paid any attention during the run up to the federal election, you know about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promise to regulate recreational cannabis use in Canada. From the inclusion of cannabis policy reform in the speech from the throne to the mandate letter to the Minister of Justice, the Liberals have shown that they see this issue as a major part of their platform and they are committed to following through. And with a majority Liberal government in place, Canada appears all but set to become the second country in the world after Uruguay to develop a national regulatory framework for cannabis.

Given these impending changes, it is useful for Canadians to consider a few questions: What will legalization look like? Is this the best route forward? Here are five points that should shed some light on the changes to come.  

1. Legalization doesn’t mean cannabis is harmless, but it acknowledges that prohibition has done more harm than good.

The negative health effects of cannabis use are often cited as the major reason to oppose regulating cannabis markets. You likely have come across someone who thinks cannabis should remain illegal because its use can result in schizophrenia or lower IQ. While these claims lack scientific evidence, this rationale also confuses the cannabis policy debate. Cannabis policy reform is not a debate about the effects of cannabis, but rather a debate about how policy should respond to the inevitable reality of cannabis consumption. Cannabis use can be harmful to some people in some circumstances. But the fact remains that banning cannabis has been unsuccessful in reducing the number of people who use it. Canadians use cannabis at some of the highest rates in the world, with more than 40 percent having used cannabis in their lifetime, despite cannabis being illegal in Canada.

 So the issue isn’t whether to stop people from consuming cannabis altogether in Canada (which so far appears impossible), rather, it is whether people should consume cannabis in an illegal market or in a legal, regulated market. And, so far, an illegal market has funnelled huge profits to organized crime, includes zero barriers to cannabis access for teens and children, and has created an environment in which people facing problems with their cannabis use have reason to fear asking for help.

2. Decriminalization is not as far-reaching.

 The Liberal government’s plan is to legalize and regulate cannabis, not simply decriminalize. Yet, it is common to hear these terms used interchangeably in public discourse. So what exactly is the difference between legalization and decriminalization?

Cannabis decriminalization can take different forms, but at its core it entails ending criminal sanctions for the personal use and possession of cannabis. This doesn’t mean that using and possessing cannabis is legal, but that sanctions for these crimes are downgraded to civil offences. Put simply, you won’t go to jail for possessing cannabis under decriminalization, but you’ll probably be charged a fine. The production and sale of cannabis remains illegal.

Decriminalization has significant advantages, like reducing the number of people going to prison for cannabis use and lowering enforcement costs. But by leaving drug dealers in control of the cannabis market, decriminalization is seen as failing to address many of the other harms caused by cannabis prohibition. Users still know little or nothing about potency or quality, and they are exposed to other drugs and to criminal activity. Teens and children can still easily purchase cannabis without showing an ID, and cannabis sales continue to fund organized crime. Legalization, in contrast, puts quality and packaging requirements on cannabis sales, establishes strict legal age restrictions to purchase cannabis, and collects tax revenues from legitimate businesses that are funnelled back into the community via taxation.

 Although legalization gives policymakers a number of tools to address the harms caused by prohibition that decriminalization does not, it is also bound to take some time to implement. As the Liberal government works on creating a regulatory framework for cannabis, it may consider decriminalizing cannabis in the meantime. 

3. Regulation rules can vary, will dictate outcomes, and are adaptable.

Could cannabis regulation lead to an unchecked, out-of-control “Big Marijuana” industry driven only by profit? Or a huge increase in the number of cannabis users? Questions like these underestimate the level of government control that is possible under regulation.

Regulation provides policymakers with a range of tools, not available under prohibition, that can be used to encourage the outcomes deemed most desirable. When it comes to “Big Marijuana,” for example, restrictions on advertising or limiting the size and nature of market players can decrease the likelihood of an unchecked and out-of-control cannabis industry. If policymakers want to prevent increases in cannabis use, they can also look to the regulatory tools used to lower rates of tobacco use, such as appropriate levels of taxation and effective public education campaigns. The strict, public health oriented regulatory approach to tobacco represents one of the few policy successes governments can point to in terms of reducing drug use (particularly among young people).

Examples like these demonstrate that no outcome is inevitable under cannabis regulation. Rather, the outcomes of cannabis policy reform depend entirely on the regulatory rules set by government.

Importantly, cannabis regulation can be adapted after implementation. It is inevitable that Canada’s cannabis regulation strategy will have some unintended consequences that will need to be addressed. But, unlike prohibition that provides policymakers with few options for modification (what more can you do than put people in prison?), a legally regulated cannabis market can be continuously tweaked in response to emerging trends in patterns of use and other outcomes.

4. Stakeholder input is crucial.

Prime Minister Trudeau has indicated that the first step towards legalization will be to “create a federal-provincial-territorial process.” But consultation and debate among all relevant stakeholders – such as law enforcement, community members, recreational and medicinal cannabis users, and industry folks from licensed producers and dispensaries – will also need to come before setting the details of cannabis regulation. Bringing together diverse voices was an important part of creating a regulatory framework for cannabis in Colorado, and Canada is expected to mirror this process. From how the medical and recreational markets will co-exist to how tax dollars will be spent, each stakeholder will provide a different perspective that must be accounted for in order to design the optimal regulatory structure.

 More than anything, the institution tasked with overseeing cannabis regulation will provide an important clue to what kinds of outcomes we see in Canada. In Washington State, the liquor control board (now called the “Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board”) oversees cannabis regulation, and in many ways cannabis is treated much like alcohol (though it is not as widely available). Canadians could see a similar situation in Canada if regulation is devolved to the provincial/territorial level, and provincial liquor agencies take on this role (as Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne suggested earlier this week). By contrast, the regulatory decisions, and resulting outcomes, will likely look very different if Health Canada is tasked with leading cannabis regulation, given that they work within the mandate of reducing health-related harms. Undoubtedly, determining the best agency to oversee cannabis regulation at the outset will be fundamental in determining the direction of Canada’s regulation of cannabis. 

5. Canada is joining a global movement of cannabis (and drug) policy reform.

Canada isn’t the only place that’s begun to look at cannabis policy differently. Colorado and Washington State made headlines in 2012 when they became the first jurisdictions to legalize and regulate recreational cannabis markets, and Uruguay became the first country to do so at a national-level in 2013. Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia joined the club in 2014. Not only do these jurisdictions provide proof that the sky doesn’t fall when cannabis is legalized and regulated, their experiences also provide important lessons that can be used to guide the creation of a regulatory framework for cannabis in Canada.

However, cannabis isn’t the only illegal drug for which policy reform is gaining traction. From a commitment to bring safer injection facilities to Ireland to an end of aerial spraying coca crops in Colombia, countries around the world are beginning to rethink the way they approach illegal drugs. This is all taking place against the backdrop of the upcoming United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS), which will take place in April, 2016, in New York — the largest international meeting on drug policy since 1998.

Under the Liberal government, Canada is a step closer to joining this global effort to stop the harms associated with illegal drug policy, harms that extend far beyond those associated with cannabis.