Lessons Learned from Canada's Federal Legalization

Canada's national flag flying outdoors

Thirty-three American states have now legalized cannabis to some capacity – with substantial variation state to state on the structuring and scope of cannabis’ approval. In other words, two-thirds of our nation’s states have granted their citizens the right to legal cannabis in some capacity. Given the extent of legalization at the state level in the United States, proponents and advocates are baffled by the continued Federal prohibition of the substance. As Federal Law supersedes the rulings of lower level jurisdictions, citizens everywhere are baffled by the legislative discrepancy. The majority of American states have opted to legalize a substance that is still prohibited under Federal Law - while dozens of strains and gummies are available at the dispensary down the block.

In December of 2013, Uruguay became the first nation on the planet to legalize the consumption, possession and small-scale growth of marijuana. Just under five years later, in October of 2018, Canada officially approved the Cannabis Act – Federally legalizing recreational cannabis use and possession throughout their home and native land.

The Cannabis Act passed with a 52-29 vote majority on the Senate floor. With it, Canada embarked on a groundbreaking endeavor – forging ahead as the details of their plans have gradually unfolded, and laying the metaphorical groundwork for the United States to someday follow in their footsteps.

Laying the Groundwork

Much to the credit of the Canadian government, they prepared extensively for the potential implications of the Cannabis Act. In fact, a Federally funded task force was created to thoroughly review all possible implications and issues that may arise from cannabis’ Federal approval, and plan accordingly. The task force meticulously outlined every facet of the bill itself. While the Cannabis Act itself is exceptionally thorough, it intentionally leaves many liberties under the jurisdiction of each of the nation’s Provinces. This allows for straightforward rulings on the topic of cannabis, and gives Canadians the opportunity to speak to their own needs and the best interests of community members.

This is a great example for the United States to follow, as statistics show that our citizens are deeply divided on nearly every political issue. Granting states with less favorable opinions of cannabis the option to adjust guidelines for themselves may allow for higher levels of backing for Federal cannabis legalization efforts.

The Federal prohibition of cannabis has led to a few key difficulties for states in which weed has been legalized. Cannabis retailers, growers and other industry professionals risk harsh penalties under Federal law – including massive fines, asset seizure – and even felony charges, regardless of state-level legality. Furthermore, becoming professionally involved with a business that sells marijuana against Federal law could leave your firm susceptible to legal and financial difficulties. The fear of penalties has made banks and loan providers justifiably reticent to entangle themselves with cannabis vendors and other industry professionals. In fact, dispensary owners have consistently voiced their difficulty securing even the basics of business management services – insurers, banks, loan providers and landlords willing to rent a business space. So many difficulties stem from the Federal prohibition of cannabis. Hopefully the United States can consider Canada’s model for Federal legalization as it continues to unfold.

Black Market

In Canada, weed is legal for individuals over the age of eighteen. Canadian eighteen-year-olds are also able to drink in most provinces. By contrast, the minimum drinking age in America – and minimum age for legal cannabis use in applicable states - is twenty-one years of age. Admittedly, college-aged individuals aren’t easily dissuaded against experimentation, and falling short of the minimum age won’t fully prevent cannabis use by underaged college students. According to a 2017 study conducted by the University of Michigan, 39% of full-time American college students smoke weed regularly. This is the highest rate of cannabis consumption in at least thirty years of reported data, implying that students aren’t all deterred by their underage status.

The minimum smoking and drinking age in America fall four full years after the average high school graduation age – and, theoretically, near the end of most college students’ undergraduate career. Many underaged students rely on black market exchanges of marijuana.

Teenaged cannabis use is a controversial notion, and rightfully so. Still, with the highest marijuana consumption rates in three decades by underaged college students, the legal limit isn’t effectively deterring all students from experimenting with recreational cannabis. Canada’s bold move to set the legal age at 18 may help to ensure that customers get exactly what they've paid for from a reputable vendor. Canada can subsequently collect the profits of the college-aged demographic, which will hopefully help to dimish the incidence of black market drug sales in the nation overall.

Canada has handled several components of its Federal Legalization with commendable foresight and logic. However, one aspect of federal legalization remains a loose end – thousands of Canadians incarcerated for minor cannabis offenses remain behind bars, despite the newly established legality of their original offenses. Canadaian officials desperately need to prioritize release decisions affecting these individuals, as their lives hang in the balance.

Canada’s generic standards for cannabis packaging were borne of good intentions – health officials wanted to prevent subconsciously biasing impressionable Canadian children toward drug use with flashy advertisements. Some adult users have complained that the generic packaging makes it too difficult to discern strains and effects from one another. Hopefully a middle ground can be reached on this front soon.

Canada’s forged ahead into their Federal Legalization efforts with confidence – and done an exceptional job in most regards. Canada established a promising precedent – granting federal approval of cannabis, with the option for greater stringency on a local level. The Canadian task force has effectively targeted black market sale rates, and netted an impressive profit to pour back into Canadian communities. Developed nations globally are watching closely as Canada sets the bar for the rest of us – making it that much easier to follow in their freshly established footsteps.