While the South American nation of Uruguay bears the distinction of being first, exactly one year ago, Canada became the first of the major industrialized democracies in the G20 to legalize cannabis, and it didn’t go unnoticed.
Countries such as New Zealand, Luxembourg and Mexico are among those that have looked to Canada for guidance or lessons, while Russia, on the other side, has chastised it for its flouting of international anti-drug treaties.
Taking a closer look at how Canada’s progressive move is playing out internationally may well predict from where the next attempt or two at cannabis laws reform will be made.
Individual states have continued to disregard federally mandated prohibition, instead legalizing cannabis within their borders. They have frequently argued that the nation’s war on pot has drained law enforcement resources, has had a disproportionate impact on minorities, and utterly failed to curb the drug’s popularity.
Thirty-three states, alongside Washington, D.C., have now legalized cannabis for medical or recreational use, with Michigan and Illinois the most recent of 11 states to OK recreational sales.
Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives, with significant bipartisan support, passed a bill that would grant legal marijuana businesses access to banking while sheltering financial institutions from prosecution for handling marijuana-linked money – a move that would clear up a serious headache for the industry. Many pot businesses have had to conduct sales and pay vendors or taxes in cash, making them robbery targets and also making it harder to detect theft, tax evasion and money laundering.
Advocates optimistically say the vote was a sign the U.S., the world’s leading proponent of the drug war, is ready for comprehensive cannabis reform.
The small nation of about 615,000 people has decriminalized possession of small amounts of the drug, and since January it has additionally permitted medicinal use. Now it is aiming to become the first country in Europe to legalize and regulate recreational sales to adults, a development that could lead to broader cannabis regulation in the European Union.
The government has announced that it intends to legalize sales, with Health Minister Etienne Schneider recently telling the Euronews television network that the country’s cannabis legislation will be “inspired by the Canadian model.” Officials estimate that it will take about two years before legal sales begin.
While Schneider said Luxembourg’s legalization won’t force the hand of other EU nations, he said he intended to speak with counterparts in Germany, France and Belgium, the countries that border Luxembourg, and encourage them to explore the possibility of regulating the drug. In the meantime, Schneider said, Luxembourg will respect their prohibitions by limiting sales to Luxembourg residents only.
Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled last year that the government’s ban on the personal use of marijuana was unconstitutional, the culmination of a series of rulings against prohibition since 2015, which have helped put Mexico on a path toward full legalization. Before he was even sworn in, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador sent emissaries to Canada to discuss its approach to cannabis.
Things are moving quickly now, with the ruling party’s Senate leader saying the chamber intends to vote on a new legalization measure by the end of this month, following dozens of forums in which politicians, advocates and voters have worked out what a regulated system might look like.
“The importance of Canada having regulated is that it broke the taboo, on an international level, in a way that Uruguay did not,” said Zara Snapp, a drug policy reform advocate in Mexico City. “For us, what it taught us is [that] there is a path, and that path is possible without there being any apocalyptic sanctions from international bodies.”
That said, after severe drug-war violence, Mexico’s legalization is not likely to mirror Canada’s, where a few massive corporations have dominated production and more artisanal growers have largely been shut out. For example, lawmakers are considering giving greater licensing privileges to indigenous groups, she said.
“We need it to have a [much larger] impact than just tax revenue or stock exchange values,” Snapp said. “The things that indicate success in other jurisdictions are not going to be the same indicators of success for us.”
New Zealand will hold a referendum next year on whether to legalize and regulate the adult use of marijuana, making it the first country to put legalization to a nationwide vote. Officials are still hammering out the exact language, but in a speech last month Justice Minister Andrew Little said the measure would include a minimum purchase and consumption age of 20, a ban on using the drug in public, limits on both home growing and marketing and advertising, a public education program, and licensing requirements for the entire supply chain.
“The approach we are taking is that in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum, it will be necessary to have a regime that affords maximum control, so that the obvious risks can be minimized,” Little told a drug policy symposium last month.
Whether the vote will be binding is a matter of dispute. The three parties that make up New Zealand’s governing coalition have vowed to honour it, but legislation would be required to effect legalization, and the centre-right party National has not made clear whether it will support the bill.
Advocates have expressed concern about social justice in New Zealand’s legalization efforts as well, suggesting that its model could strike a balance between Uruguay, where access to cannabis is tightly controlled at a small number of pharmacies, and the more commercial approach taken by some Canadian provinces and U.S. states.
Wording such as ‘regime’ may be a worrying sign.
Canada’s legalization hasn’t been uniformly well received. Russia’s representative to the international Commission on Narcotic Drugs lamented the “barefaced” and “blatant violation by Canada of its international obligations” under anti-drug treaties.
“There exists real danger that some other countries may follow the example set by Canada, which would lead to the erosion and even dismantling of the whole international legal foundation of our fight against narcotic drugs,” Mikhail Ulyanov said.
As recently as this month, Russia’s mission to the UN tweeted: “#Legalization of narcotic drugs, including cannabis, for recreational purposes constitutes a grave violation of the international law.”
But Russia may have ulterior motives in criticizing Canada, given what many world leaders consider to be its own flouting of international law in annexing Crimea, among other issues.
“Russia has its reasons for trying to call out a country like Canada on its commitment to international rule of law,” said John Walsh, who monitors global drug policy with the advocacy group Washington Office on Latin America. “They delight in being able to say Canada is athwart its obligations. But I don’t think Russia’s bluster is going to keep other countries from moving forward.”
Learning from Mistakes
While the argument can be easily made that Canada legalizing cannabis across the country broke down certain long held barriers that prevented or at least greatly discouraged other countries from pursuing the same, blindly following the Canadian approach will prove a far less than satisfactory end result for many countries.
With limited product availability, higher pricing across the board, and with medicinal users being largely forgotten in the legislative shuffle, the marketed ‘end of cannabis prohibition’ came crashing through the ceiling, as opposed to simply stepping through the door.
A consultation process that was completely limited and misdirected in scope, and a licensing system wrought with bureaucracy, meant that at the time of legalization, Canadians across the country were left out in the cold, unable to access product in many of the largest markets, from coast to coast, to coast.
Medicinal users, for whom much of the advocacy for legalization was being fabled around, were ultimately hit the hardest, as the specificity of a product tailored to their needs was often nonexistent, and with high price points on what remained, coupled with limited retailers, most patients turned back to the remaining grey market dispensaries, and fringe black market dealers.
The thorough consultation forums conducted in Mexico, and the nationwide referendum modelled in New Zealand, take great strides to make sure individual voices are heard, including those of indigenous groups, and bring together a more collaborative effort that will cast a larger net for a more accurately defined level of success. Patients that make use of cannabis need to be more widely considered as well, if international legalization efforts are to be fairly implemented with patient care and quality of life in mind, and back here at home, having not fixed the launch mistakes, a potential third round of legalization next year may be needed to adjust pit falls affecting those same patients, such as the low 10mg levels of allowable THC in edibles, launching within the next 60 days.
A work in progress, to say the least.
With files from Gene Johnson, The Associated Press