OTTAWA: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government unveiled legislation on Thursday to fully legalise marijuana, making Canada only the second country to do so, after Uruguay.
While medical marijuana use has been regulated in this country since 2001, cannabis remains a controlled substance.
Its legalisation and regulation for recreational use is expected in 2018, in time for Canada’s national holiday on July 1.
The move is supported by a strong majority of Canadians, but is not without controversy and is sure to provoke a lively debate in parliament over the coming months.
The stated aim of legalisation is to reduce policing and prosecutions, and keep marijuana out of the hands of children.
Trudeau himself admitted in 2013 to having smoked pot five or six times in his life, including at a dinner party with friends after being elected to parliament.
He has also said that his late brother Michel was facing marijuana possession charges for a “tiny amount” of pot before his death in an avalanche in 1998, and that this influenced his decision to propose legalising cannabis.
Parliamentarians on pot
Opposition parties are split on the issue. The New Democrats have called for its immediate legalisation in order to end drug prosecutions they say are causing undue harm and wasting police resources.
A frontrunner for the leadership of the Tories, meanwhile, said she would repeal the bill and reinstate the ban, if elected.
In anticipation of legalisation, there has been a rush on licenses to produce medical marijuana, pot stocks have shot up, and dispensaries have opened in cities across the country vying for market share in what promises to be a lucrative business, leading to police raids and calls for sellers to wait for the legal regime.
Health groups have expressed concern about the potential impact of marijuana on developing brains under the age of 25.
But a government-appointed task force has concluded that the “current science is not definitive on a safe age for cannabis use.”
According to government statistics, as many as 4.6 million Canadians will consume an estimated total 655 metric tons of cannabis annually by 2018, spending an estimated Can$4.2 billion to Can$6.2 billion each year.
The new regulations closely follow recommendations proposed in December by the task force led by former deputy prime minister Anne McLellan.
Under these rules, individuals would be allowed to grow up to four plants at home for personal use.
Personal possession, however, would be limited to 30 grams (one ounce).
The feds would provide oversight for quality and safety, but distribution will be the responsibility of each of Canada’s 13 provinces and territories.
Since the intention of legalisation is to stop criminalizing users, the government chose an age that would not force adults under 25 to turn to the illicit market.
It noted the eight US states where recreational marijuana use is legal — including Colorado, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Washington — had aligned the minimum age with alcohol consumption at 21. In Canada, legal adulthood starts at 18 in most provinces.
Trafficking would continue to be illegal and punishable by up to 14 years in prison, as would selling pot to youths or driving under the influence.
The drug has created new enforcement challenges because there has never been a legal or verified scientific test to determine a level of THC — the psychoactive chemical in pot — that causes impairment.
Under the new regime, police would use roadside saliva or blood tests to determine a person’s drug intoxication.