The Highs and Lows of Cannabis Legalization

Jasper Paredes

As many Canadians already know, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government plans to fundamentally change the way cannabis is handled and sold in Canada. Their proposed Cannabis Act is expected to become law by July 2018, and aims to establish a strict framework for regulating the production, distribution, selling, and possession of cannabis across Canada.

The main objectives of the Act are to reduce the accessibility of cannabis to youth younger than 18 years old; decrease the profitability of illegal cannabis dealing and growing; and improve public health by enhancing public awareness of the health risks associated with cannabis. All of the proposed changes under the Cannabis Act are informed by the recommendations of the Final Report of the Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation but are subject to modification by the provincial governments.

Currently, cannabis is a schedule 2 drug under the Controlled Drug and Substances Act, which means that possessing and selling cannabis for non-medical purposes is now illegal everywhere in Canada, regardless of age. With the expected passing of the Cannabis Act in July 2018, however, adults under the proposed Act would now be able to legally possess and share up to 30 grams of cannabis with other adults, for recreational or medicinal purposes. However, illegal possession over the 30-gram limit would be punishable by law by up to 5 years in jail, with penalties set in proportion to the severity of the offence.

Though adults will be able to legally buy cannabis under these changes, the Cannabis Act will aim to restrict youth access by educating this demographic about cannabis consumption and by intensifying the legal penalties for selling or providing cannabis to youth. More specifically, the Act defines giving or selling cannabis to youth and using youth to commit a cannabis-related offense as criminal offenses that are punishable by up to 14 years in jail. To further reduce the usage of cannabis by youth, the Act also criminalizes packaging or labelling cannabis in ways that may appeal to youth and selling cannabis through vending machines, with violation penalties of fines up to $5,000,000 or jail sentences up to three years. The federal government has also committed $9.6 million to deliver a comprehensive public awareness campaign to educate youth under 18 on the health and safety risks of cannabis consumption. This campaign would include targeted public service announcements, social media campaigns, and informational videos discouraging Canadian youth from using cannabis products.

Furthermore, storefront operations (commonly known as dispensaries) currently selling cannabis under present cannabis laws are not licensed by Health Canada and are technically illegal, but are often tolerated because the police consider drug trafficking and the rise of new drugs like fentanyl to be issues of higher priority. The cannabis supplies of these dispensaries are provided by illegal cannabis growers and are unregulated products that are potentially unsafe for consumers. The expected passing of the Cannabis Act in July 2018 would force law-abiding adults looking to buy cannabis legally to purchase it from provincially-licensed retailers selling quality controlled, regulated products. For example, the Ontario government has announced its plans to open up to 150 provincial “cannabis stores” managed by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, as well as an online cannabis store, both of which will serve as the only legal channels for Ontario citizens to purchase cannabis products. Ontario will also be setting the minimum age for cannabis use to 19 years, to match the provincial legal drinking age minimum.

Additionally, under the proposed bill, adults looking to legally grow their own cannabis for personal use will now be able to grow up to 4 cannabis plants per residence (from licensed seedlings) at any given time, although no plant can be taller than 100 cm. Failure to comply with this personal cultivation limit is punishable by law by up to 14 years in jail, depending on the severity of the infraction. However, there is currently no established plan to regulate the production and selling of edibles, such as cannabis brownies or cookies. Retailers won’t be able to sell these products until a comprehensive edibles plan is established by the federal government.

The proposed Cannabis Act also comes bundled with the proposed strengthening of impaired driving laws through Bill C-46 to address concerns of a potential increase in cannabis-impaired driving. This bill would give police officers the authority to conduct roadside saliva tests on drivers that they suspect to be under the influence of cannabis, and would introduce a trio of new criminal offences. More specifically, drivers found with THC levels from 2–5 nanograms (ng) per milliliter (ml) of blood would face a fine of up to $1000, while those found with THC levels higher than 5 ng per ml of blood would face up to 10 years in jail. Drivers found with THC levels higher than 2.5 ng per ml of blood in combination with blood alcohol levels of more than 50 milligrams of alcohol per 100 ml of blood could also face up to 10 years in jail.

Cannabis pricing is also still under debate. Scholars including Anindya Sen, a professor of economics at the University of Waterloo, have advocated that the pricing of government regulated cannabis must be low enough to compete with black market prices. Since the average street price for cannabis is currently between $8 and $10 per gram, Sen told Global News that the price of legal cannabis should not exceed $11 or $12 a gram, taxes included. According to Sen, keeping prices competitive will be the only way to reduce the profitability of illegal cannabis growing and selling for criminal organizations in the black market. 

July 2018 is almost here, but citizens must remember that all current cannabis and driving laws will remain in effect until the proposed Cannabis Act and Bill C-46 officially become law. The wait until that fateful day may represent an eternity to excited cannabis advocates and a tight, looming deadline for anxious policy makers, but one thing is for sure: change is coming. But the ways in which citizens, youth, and the black market will ultimately react to that change is still just smoke in the air.

Jasper Paredes is a 2019 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance, and holds a Bachelor of Health Studies degree in Health Policy from York University. His main policy interests include health policy, economic policy, and social policy. When he is not in the library, you can most likely find him playing soccer, drinking coffee at local cafes, or checking his fantasy basketball lineup.