Drugs

Oh, Canada! Marijuana Is Now Legal in Great White North

Canada becomes the second country and the first G7 member to free the weed.

Photo Credit: Cannabis Culture/Flickr

As of Wednesday, October 17, marijuana is legal in Canada. Our northern neighbor becomes the second country to fully legalize weed (after Uruguay led the way in 2013), and the first major industrial power to do so.

While the Liberal-dominated federal parliament passed the C-45 legalization bill earlier this year, October 17 marks the beginning of legal marijuana sales and commerce. Under Canada's federal legalization, there will now be an overarching national regulatory framework, but each province establishes its own system of licensing and regulating marijuana businesses.

Like liquor laws in the U.S., Canada's provincial marijuana laws will have some variation. In some provinces, such as Alberta and British Columbia, licensed producers will store their product in government-regulated warehouses, then ship it to retail pot outlets and online customers. Others, such as Newfoundland, will have growers ship directly to stores or to customers through the mail. Ontario, the country's most populous province, will at first only have mail deliveries because the new Conservative provincial government rejected a plan for state-owned stores in favor of privately held shops. Ontario doesn't expect to have any licensed pot shops open for business until April.

Marijuana consumers will pay a federal tax of $1 per gram or 10 percent, whichever is higher, with the federal government keeping one-fourth of those revenues and returning the rest to the provinces. The provinces can also tax marijuana sales, and consumers will have to pay local sales taxes on top of that.

Wednesday's roll-out of the legal pot system isn't exactly starting with a bang. Only about 100 pot shops will be open across the country of 37 million, and only one in the entire province of British Columbia. Many, many more will be coming as the provinces finalize regulatory approaches and potential operators get their permitting in order.

There won't be any edibles for sale for now; marijuana-infused foods and concentrates are expected to be available sometime next year. In the meantime, what's on offer will be buds, capsules, tinctures, and seeds.

That Canada has now legalized marijuana is a very big deal, American marijuana and drug reform groups say.

“Canada’s move to legalize marijuana is a historic rebuke to the disastrous global war on drugs, which has ruined millions of lives,” said Hannah Hetzer, global marijuana policy analyst for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Many countries are searching for innovative approaches to drug policy that emphasize health and rights, rather than repression. By taking this bold and principled step, Canada will likely become an inspiration for many other countries,” she said.

“The legalization of marijuana in Canada, and the likely changes we will see on drug policy in Mexico under its new government, make the United States federal government's prohibition on marijuana even more untenable. It's long past time for Congress and the administration to take action on this issue,” Hetzer concluded.

"Canada is setting a strong example for how to end marijuana prohibition at the national level and replace it with a system of regulated production and sales that is largely governed at the local level," said Steve Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project.

"The Canadian model is rather similar to what many envision for the U.S., and in many ways it mirrors what is happening here, as states have taken the lead in regulating commercial cannabis activity," Hawkins continued. "The big difference—and it is a critical difference—is the blessing provincial governments have received from their federal government. It is time for Congress to step up and take similar action to harmonize our nation's state and federal marijuana policies."

Indeed, Canada's full federal legalization is going to provide an edge for Canadian marijuana companies and researchers compared to the U.S. Even though nine states, including California (which has more people than Canada), the District of Columbia, and the Northern Mariana Islands have legalized weed, the continuing federal prohibition on marijuana and its continuing classification as a Schedule I drug continue to create a significant hurdle for U.S. pot businesses and research efforts.

America's loss could be Canada's gain, Hawkins said.

"As just the second country and the first G7 nation to end marijuana prohibition, Canada has positioned itself as a global leader for cannabis business and development. As the U.S. continues to face federal roadblocks to cannabis-related medical research, Canada could very well become the world leader in discovering new cannabis-based medicines. The country has already begun to experience some of the economic benefits that come with being one of the first nations to establish a legal marijuana market for adult use. It won't be long before it begins to see the public health and safety benefits that stem from replacing an illegal market with a regulated one," he explained.

"Canada is going to generate significant revenue, create all sorts of jobs and business opportunities, and become the world leader for cannabis-related research and development," Hawkins continued. "Hopefully Congress will take notice quickly and that competitive American spirit will kick in sooner rather than later."

We'll see about that after the next elections. In the meantime, Canada is going to take that competitive advantage and run with it. And Mexico's president-elect, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is making noises about legalizing marijuana south of the border. Wouldn't it be ironic if the United States turned out to be the last country in North America to free the weed?

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The Drug Policy Alliance is a financial supporter of Drug Reporter.

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Phillip Smith has been a drug policy journalist for the past two decades. Smith is currently a senior writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute