Everything You Need to Know about Canada's Legalization

By Jon Young on May 7, 2017

On April 13, Canada introduced its long-awaited bill to legalize recreational cannabis for adults 18 and older, fulfilling Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 2015 campaign promise. But what’s in the bill, will it pass and what will be its consequences? As Canada moves to make history and become the first fully developed major country to legalize cannabis, the future of drug reform worldwide awaits the fallout of the largest legalization effort to date.

A Quick History

Canada first legalized medical marijuana (MMJ) in 2001, and after a subsequent broadening of its scope, industrial-scale cannabis operations such as Canopy Growth Corporation (f.k.a Tweed) and Aurora Cannabis Inc. took off. While those enrolled in the program were only allowed to mail-order cannabis, illegal dispensaries began to meet consumer demand. So far, most law-enforcement officials have turned a blind eye to these pop-up stores. However, as late as this year, government-sanctioned raids have shut down many of these illegal storefronts even as legalization looms just around the corner.  

What’s Coming?

While many see the coming legalization of cannabis as the government relaxing its rules and implementing a laissez faire attitude toward drugs, the reality is far from it. The ruling liberal party led by Trudeau states on their website

“We will legalize, regulate, and restrict access to marijuana.” 

After reading through the lengthy bill, they seem to be standing by their promise of heavy regulation and the implementation of a governmental framework with severe punishments for anyone that steps outside of it. According to their statement:

“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.”

With a liberal majority, the bill is expected to pass, and consumers will be able to purchase cannabis as early as July 2018, though changes will certainly be made as it makes its way through Parliament, especially concerning the availability of edibles and how dispensaries are owned and operated. But what exactly is in the bill?

Some specifics from Canada’s “Cannabis Act

  • The Federal Government will license producers but leave how it is distributed, the price and whether the stores will be private or state-owned up to the provinces.

  • The minimum legal age to purchase cannabis is set by the Federal Government at 18, though provinces can choose higher age restrictions. 

  • Those aged 18+ can grow up to four plants per household (not per person), and the plants cannot exceed one meter in height or be visible to the public.

  • In jurisdictions without a distributary framework, those aged 18+ will be allowed to get mail-order cannabis from a federally licensed producer.  

  • Those aged 18+ can carry only 30 grams (close to an ounce) on their person at a time.

  • Those aged 18+ can “share” up to 30 grams of cannabis with others aged 18+.

  • Advertising and promotions cannot appeal to children, will be extremely limited and can only be directed directly at a customer aged 18+ where access to minors is restricted.

  • Labels will have to be purely informational, and branding may be banned.  

  • Cannabis vending machines and self-service displays are banned.

  • Cannabis-infused nicotine, caffeine or alcohol is not allowed.  

  • You can make your own edibles at home, but concentrates using organic solvents are banned.

  • Tourists are allowed to purchase and consume cannabis while in Canada, but it cannot leave or enter the country. 

  • There is a heavy distinction between illicit cannabis and legal cannabis. Illicit cannabis is any cannabis, including the seed, that is grown by an unlicensed producer and/or purchased on the black market and possession of which can lead to jail time.


  • Motorists and those suspected of being intoxicated at job sites can be subject to saliva or blood samples, with 2 nanograms of active THC in the blood a criminal offense punishable by a fine and more than 5 nanograms a more serious offense leading to jail time. 

  • For those aged 18+ who possess more than 30 grams of dried flower, a flowering plant in public or more than four flowering plants in private are subject to up to five years in prison, though possessing between 31 and 50 grams, or five to six plants, will generally result in a $200 ticket plus fees. 

  • Those aged 18+ caught distributing to a minor, using a minor for cannabis-related offences or distributing illicit cannabis (not from a licensed producer) can get up to 14 years in prison.

  • Taking cannabis in or out of Canada can be punished by up to 14 years in prison.

The Good and the Bad

The Cannabis Act rightly aims to protect minors, public health and reduce the burden on the criminal justice system. By having a strictly regulated, seed-to-sale framework in place, law enforcement could have an easier time of finding and limiting trafficking and major crime networks. However, small-scale operations may have a harder time in getting licensed within this framework, and the system will most likely benefit major corporate producers. It is also unclear how home growers could be affected if they share seeds or plants with other home growers, and if unregistered, whether the seeds, plants and flower would be considered illicit. 

The banning of concentrates, including hash, oils, shatter, etc., could also lead to problems further down the road as they become more popular. 

Shortly after the bill was announced, a study done by the Angus Reid Institute found that 63 percent of Canadians were in favor of the plan. The majority of reservations with the plan were that the age limit is too low, with 72 percent believing it should be higher; preventative measures would fail to keep minors from accessing cannabis; and that organized crime would still find a way to profit from the trade. 

The Last Hurdle: International Law

While Canada is looking to legalize by July 2018, one major challenge may be international drug treaties that bar member countries from legalizing the recreational use of any of the agreed upon illicit drugs, of which cannabis is considered one. There are several routes Canada could take to avoid any penalties for violating these treaties, but none are without their downsides. 

It could follow the example of Uruguay, the only other country in the world to fully legalize cannabis, which is in violation of these treaties, but they effectively ignored any objections with no major consequences. But for a country with the size and importance of Canada, to simply ignore the treaty could lead to serious consequences and potential removal from international organizations. 

Or, it could follow the example of Bolivia, who legalized the chewing of coca leaves by withdrawing from the treaties and rejoining with a “reservation” that allows for the exception. But a one-year notice of withdrawal is required, and to legalize cannabis by July 2018, Canada would only have a couple of months to decide on this course of action. 

Or, Canada could use the old science loophole, because why not turn Canada’s legalization effort into an enormous science experiment? 

As outlined by Steven Hoffman, director of the University of Ottawa’s Global Strategy Lab, “There is only one promising legal workaround—one that utilizes the treaties’ 'scientific purposes' exemption. This would involve claiming that cannabis legalization was necessary to conduct a big natural experiment on the inter-generational effects of legal cannabis and would likely require enrolling every cannabis purchaser into a long-term cohort study. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research already announced small research grants to evaluate the forthcoming legislation’s effects; the government agency could be funded to organize additional research on a scale that justifies national cannabis legalization for scientific purposes.” 

So whether Canada flouts international law or finds a legal workaround, the last major hurdle to whether there is legal cannabis in Canada next year might not be Canadian citizens, but international treaties.

Credit: Flickr.


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