On Oct. 17, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s experiment in legalized cannabis became a reality. The Criminal Code changes prohibiting use and possession of marijuana required provinces to change their laws and municipalities to alter their bylaws as the country begins a new regime of decriminalized pot. Provinces have different rules governing the sale of legal marijuana and cities have different rules governing where and how it can be consumed.
Under the new Cannabis Act, simple possession of 30 grams or less of the substance will no longer be a crime. It can be grown and sold only by those who are licensed to do so, but it will be possible for a household to grow four plants for personal use, depending on what the individual provinces and territories legislate.
In Manitoba, individuals will not be allowed to grow their own marijuana while in British Columbia people can have up to four plants if they are grown out of sight. New Brunswick and Saskatchewan are selling marijuana through government-run stores while private businesses will sell it in Newfoundland and Ontario (the latter beginning next April). British Columbia has both government-run and private stores selling pot.
Some provinces, such as Manitoba, will limit smoking marijuana to private residences, while places such as Newfoundland will allow it on any private property. British Columbia and Alberta prohibits smoking marijuana in cars, areas frequented by children, or anywhere tobacco is restricted. Quebec will allow marijuana to be used anywhere tobacco is permitted except on university and college campuses. Nunavut will establish designated cannabis lounges and specially permitted events.
Alberta and Quebec will allow 18-year-olds to consume marijuana, but all other provinces will limit it to 19-years and older. New Quebec CAQ Premier François Legault has said he will raise the minimum age to purchase or consume marijuana to 21.
Although the Cannabis Actprohibits the sale of marijuana to those under 18, many children will have access to marijuana since every home is permitted to have or grow four plants in the home. And although it is illegal for 18-year-olds to grow their own cannabis, it is legal for anyone between 12 and 17 to possess up to 5 grams on their person (enough for 8-12 joints).
Provinces are free to implement policies in accordance with the new federal law.
Provinces want Ottawa to share revenues from the taxation of the now legal product to offset increased public education, health, and law enforcement costs. Ministries of health and law enforcement agencies expect an increase in use that will see increased emergency room visits and driving under the influence charges, that will affect taxpayers, let alone users and their families.
The Canadian Medical Association Journalsaid in an editorial that legalized pot is “a national, uncontrolled experiment” and called upon the federal government to monitor the health effects of recreational pot use by adults and youth. It said, “any increase” in recreational use by “adults or youth, should be viewed as a failure.”
The CMAJ editorial predicts that the growing cannabis industry, whose goal is to generate profits, will begin by capturing the lion’s share of the $8 billion-black market in Canada, and then pivot to increase consumption among users and attract new users, including young consumers. Health Canada has found that one in ten cannabis users become addicted, but that among youth, addiction rates are higher.
The Trudeau government has insisted that they have taken precautions to protect young people. The new law bans providing or selling cannabis to youth and outlaws advertising that appeals to youth, although neither youth nor appealing is defined in the law. Ottawa has also dedicated $45 million over five years for public education campaigns to discourage people from starting toking up.
Brian Goldman, an emergency room physician and health blogger for the CBC, said that mere legalization sends a message to the general population, especially young people, that cannabis use is acceptable. Indeed, a Canadian Automobile Association study has found rising rates of cannabis use among drivers in recent years as the political debate about legalizing the drug has taken centre stage.
Goldman predicts increased cases of mental health problems including paranoia, panic attacks, hallucinations, and psychosis, as well as more injuries from accidents and emergency room visits for vomiting and rapid heart rates.
Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, told the CBC, the experiment in cannabis decriminalization is an opportunity to gather evidence of the effects of marijuana. Canada, she said, can be a “key international generator of knowledge on cannabis risk and harms, but also potentially some of its benefits.” Tam said that it is difficult to gather accurate information on the effects of cannabis considering that until recently it was illegal and most users did not want to come forward to help researchers.
There is existing research, however, that points to deleterious health effects, especially on youth. Romina Mizrahi, a neuropharmacology specialist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, told the CBC that cannabis use before the age of 25 is dangerous to the development of youths’ brains and that while the full effect is not known, it affects the brain’s “architecture” and “at this point in time there is no question that early use of cannabis … is associated with a higher risk of psychosis,” including schizophrenia, among youth.
Meanwhile, the Liberal government appears ready to make pot pardons easier. On the day marijuana became legal nation-wide, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale announced plans to expedite the pardon process and waive fees for those with a criminal record for marijuana. Goodale said the pardons would “shed the burden and stigma” for those with marijuana convictions.
The law decriminalizing marijuana passed in Parliament in June, but the federal government gave provinces until Oct. 17 to implement their legal pot policies.
Yet, in September, the Trudeau government signed the United Nations “Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem,” committing Canada to “limit the production, manufacture, export, import, and distribution of, trade in, use, and possession of drugs to exclusively medical and scientific purposes.” On Oct. 17, the International Narcotics Control Board issued a statement expressing its “regret” at Canada’s cannabis legalization policy. The statement said that Canada’s action undermined the “Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem.”