Where Are We Going With Canada's Marijuana Legislation?

With the recent election of Justin Trudeau as Canada’s 23rd Prime Minister, expectations are high concerning the ambitious legislative agenda expected to be passed in the months to come. But will that include the long-promised reform of Canada’s marijuana laws?

During the recent election, every elected Liberal member of Parliament, including Justin Trudeau, went on record in support of marijuana legislation. The Liberal election platform was also emphatic in stating that "Canada's current system of marijuana prohibition does not work. We will remove marijuana consumption and incidental possession from the Criminal Code and create new, stronger laws to punish more severely those who provide it to minors, those who operate a motor vehicle while under its influence and those who sell it outside of the new regulatory framework."  

Despite attempts by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives to use the Liberal promise of marijuana legalization against them during the election, their defeat on October 19 removed the last barrier to ending fifty years of anti-marijuana drug laws.

Or has it?   Even with the promised reform, the political process involved is likely to be a long one, especially with opposition from conservative groups, including many of the country’s police chiefs. As well marijuana legalization will certainly cause friction with the United States given that country’s tough drug policies.  Still, the new Prime Minister has already directed his Minister of Justice to establish a federal and provincial task force expected to hear from public health and safety experts, the process seems well underway.

And a timely new report by the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse (CCSA) may help that process along. Titled, “Cannabis Regulations: Lessons Learned in Colorado and Washington State", the new report describes the findings of two CCSA delegations to Colorado and Washington where they examined the problems involved in decriminalizing marijuana and allowing it to be sold commercially.

Both states allow marijuana to be purchased by adults over the age of twenty-one for use in private dwellings. There are differences however since Colorado allows up to five marijuana plants per household while Washington bans all private production (marijuana can only be purchased through licensed vendors).

What the CCSA report concluded was that decriminalizing marijuana involves creating a strong framework for regulating its use and distribution.   Colorado had an advantage in this process since medical marijuana had already been allowed and a comprehensive distribution system was in place, something that Washington lacked.

Some of other lessons included in the CCSA report were:

  • Reconcile medical and retail markets to curb the “grey market” in selling or distributing products that aren’t technically illegal
  • Be prepared to respond to the unexpected such as a surge in applications to sell or distribute marijuana
  • Control product format and concentrations to avoid medical problems and ensure consistency of the product being sold
  • Prevent commercialization using taxation, regulation, and controls on advertising and promotion and
  • Prevent use by youth through health promotion, public awareness, and education for both youth and parents

          Canada will likely follow the Colorado model of legalization since it already has a comprehensive medical marijuana program in place. Still though, the existing laws can be hard for patients trying to get access. Under the Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR) that came into force in June 2013, Canadians with a proven medical need can purchase dried marijuana from licensed providers if they have written approval by their medical practitioners.   Also, federal health agencies emphatically state that dried marijuana is not an approved drug in Canada and that the Government of Canada only legalize its medical use due to pressure from the courts.

         Unfortunately, medical marijuana remains unavailable for many patients across Canada.   Medical doctors and nurse practitioners are often reluctant to prescribe marijuana for their patients due to ethical qualms or concerns about potential addiction.   As well, use of marijuana to treat conditions such as posttraumatic stress disorder, attention deficit disorder, and chronic pain is still controversial and medical practitioners may prefer more traditional medical treatments.  While the list of licensed providers is growing slowly, the rigorous approval process laid down by current legislation, including a security clearance and repeated inspections by law enforcement agencies can take months, if not years, from start to finish. Also under the legislation, patients are forbidden from growing their own marijuana, possessing more than thirty times their daily requirement at any given time, or importing marijuana from another country.

    As for whether legalized marijuana under the new government will make it more available to anyone who wants to use it, that will likely depend on the federal task force Prime Minister Trudeau appoints and how they decide to proceed over the next few years.

    But not everyone is so optimistic about the Liberal promise to legalize marijuana.   Mark Emery, the cannabis activist dubbed the “Prince of Pot” by the media, feels that the path to legalization will be much longer than anyone thinks. Having spent five years in a U.S. prison for selling mail-order cannabis seeds to the U.S., Emery argues that the stigma against marijuana is still extremely strong.  Much like the battle for medical marijuana legalizing marijuana for recreational use will mean antagonizing conservative politicians, police forces, and the United States.   Even with the backing of the new government, Emery remains suspicious of any attempt to regulate marijuana, which he insists is much more harmless than alcohol which is far more likely to be abused.

    In a recent commentary written in The Georgia Strait, Emery said that:

In all the editorials and articles by the establishment’s gatekeepers that have flooded the newspapers lately about how “regulation” should look, virtually none are by any of the millions of consumers of cannabis in Canada. It's like we are children who are having their rules given to them by parents who know better. But that's patriarchy, or rather with 50 percent of the cabinet women, including the Minister of Justice and Health, that's hierarchy, where essentially the haters who have always been in power are going to decide on the future of the cannabis culture and how it will be in their interpretation of “legal”.

    While this legal battle continues to brew, cities across the country have passed tough new legislation aimed at controlling marijuana consumption and police are more diligent than ever with enforcement. Vancouver, long considered to be at the forefront of drug tolerance, is cracking down on its current “grey market” by creating “safe zones” where marijuana cannot be sold.

    Though more dispensaries than ever are being approved, some disappointed candidates are finding themselves being shut down even though legalization seems just around the corner. One of these failed candidates is Dana Larsen, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries and owner of two Vancouver pot shops.   Both of his shops have been rejected as dispensaries because they are located too close to schools.   While he is discussing filing a lawsuit, he knows it isn’t likely to succeed.   In an interview with the Vancouver Sun, he mentioned the irony of his situation. “We’ve never had a problem with anybody, ever,” he said. “And now that it’s going to be legalized we are going to have to shut down.”


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