For the first time, this year’s federal election features cannabis as a major point of discussion, with each party holding different views for voters to choose from in October.
Depending on the party elected, Canada’s cannabis laws could see a shift unprecedented since prohibition was enacted in 1923 under the Narcotics Drug Act Amendment Bill.
Over the past few years, several US states, including Colorado, Alaska, Washington and Oregon, have voted to relax their cannabis laws, changes that have paved the way for other states and nations to follow.
Sensing that change could be possible this year, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in Canada has reversed the position of neutrality it has held since 1978, urging voters to support parties that promise to legalize cannabis.
“This is our election, this is the most important election on this topic in recent memory,” said NORML Canada executive director Craig Jones.
Canada has come close to cannabis reform in the past.
In 2002, the Special Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs recommended the legalization of cannabis in this country in an exhaustive, over 600-page report.
“Scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that cannabis is substantially less harmful than alcohol and should be treated not as a criminal issue but as a social and public health issue,” said Special Committee chair and Senator Pierre Claude Nolin. “As a drug, it should be regulated by the State much as we do for wine and beer, hence our preference for legalization over decriminalization.”
In 2003, Jean Chrétien’s Liberals introduced Bill C-38, which would have decriminalized possession. The bill died when parliament was prorogued and reintroduced by the Paul Martin government in 2004. After Martin’s minority government was defeated in a confidence vote, the Conservatives did not revisit the issue when they came to power in 2006.
Each party has stated their opinions on cannabis ahead of the election.
Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have promised to maintain the status quo – a purely medical-based system that restricts cultivation to licensed producers governed by Health Canada.
Harper has said he will never agree to decriminalization.
“It will not happen under our government,” Harper said. “We’re very concerned about the spread of drugs in the country and the damage it’s doing and as you know we have legislation before the House [of Commons] to crack down.”
Harper has said any change to relax cannabis laws would reverse what he sees as declining use in this country. Harper said areas that legalized cannabis now have higher rates of addiction, leading to health issues.
A UNICEF report found Canadian youth had a 28 per cent rate of cannabis use, higher than Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands – countries where use has been decriminalized, legalized or seen relaxed enforcement.
“We just think that’s the wrong direction for society and I don’t think that’s the way most Canadians want to deal with this particular problem,” Harper said at a campaign event in August.
A 2014 Department of Justice poll found more than 37 per cent of Canadians favour legalization and more than 33 per cent support decriminalization for possession of small amounts of cannabis.
September’s issue of Canadian Medical Association Journal suggested cannabis prohibition has failed and the drug could be legalized and regulated like alcohol or tobacco, with oversight from health professionals.
“If Canadian policy-makers decide to create a legal, regulatory framework for cannabis, it is critical that public health objectives be the foundation of changes,” the CMAJ article stated. “Otherwise, Canada may experience the same health and social harms that resulted from the commercialization of alcohol and tobacco.”
Harper’s tough on drugs approach is evident in the party’s platform. In 2012, the Conservatives introduced mandatory minimum sentences for cannabis production. If re-elected, the Conservatives would put $26.5 million toward the RCMP team designed to crack down on illegal drug labs and grow-ops, an increase of almost $5 million.
The actual costs of enforcing cannabis regulations were estimated at between $300 and $500 million by the Senate report in 2002, which concluded the costs “are disproportionately high given the drug’s social and health consequences.”
In contrast to his stance on decriminalization, Harper has overseen the creation of 26 licensed cannabis producers in Canada – supplying the nation’s medical cannabis users.
By 2024, Health Canada estimated medical cannabis sales to be $1.3 billion a year, with 450,000 users registered in the program.
In comparison, the NDP under Thomas Mulcair has promised to decriminalize cannabis immediately if they form government.
“The NDP has had the same position for about 40 years,” Mulcair said. “Decriminalizing marijuana is the position of the NDP, it’s my position and it’s something that we can do immediately.”
Under Mulcair, personal possession of cannabis would be punishable by a ticket or a fine, at the discretion of the officer, and not an arrestable offence.
Muclair hasn’t clarified the definition of a “small amount.” Currently, under the Controlled Substances Act, possession of cannabis is defined as under 30 grams.
The party has said it will devote resources to study further steps after decriminalization is accomplished.
An NDP minority report in 2014 stated the NDP would “establish an independent commission with a broad mandate, including safety and public health, to consult Canadians on all aspects of the non-medical use of marijuana.”
The NDP’s current plan would still leave the production of cannabis under prohibition, as growing and supplying the drug remains illegal.
Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have said they will legalize recreational use and production of cannabis in Canada if elected.
In 2012, almost 80 per cent of delegates attending the Liberal Party of Canada’s biennial policy convention in Ottawa voted in favour of, “legalization of cannabis, taxation of its production, distribution, and use, while enacting strict penalties for illegal trafficking, illegal importation and exportation.”
“It is time that Canada regulated and controlled marijuana to protect our kids, to protect our communities, and to prevent the funds from flowing into the coffers of drug runners and street gangs,” Trudeau said. “That is what we are committed to and that’s what we’ll get cracking on when we form a government.”
The Liberal plan would create a system where cannabis and cannabis products could be sold openly to Canadians of legal age, with production and sales taxed by government.
A Liberal policy paper proposed a four-ounce limit for cannabis possession, per person.
“We feel this is reasonable and akin to purchasing a 40 or 60 oz. bottle of vodka or whisky a couple times a year instead of buying a small bottle each month,” the report said.
The specifics of the plan’s implementation aren’t available, but the control is likely to be similar to alcohol – federally controlled and provincially regulated. The sale and legal age of consumption of alcohol is under provincial and territorial jurisdiction, leading to a variety of models across the country.
“We would like to see that model, where an adult could go to a store and buy properly labeled, high quality cannabis products,” said Dana Larsen, director of Sensible BC, a non-profit dedicated to ending Canada’s cannabis ban. “If the federal government takes cannabis out of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the provinces would end up having to create legislation for cannabis.”
Standards for production would be created, with health codes for grow-ops put in place and the operations subject to inspections. Health Canada already has a compliance enforcement program for licensed medicinal cannabis producers, although it is likely a new program will be put in place for the recreational market.
In Colorado, where cannabis is legal, cannabis production is monitored by the Marijuana Enforcement Division while cannabis-infused food operations are regulated under the Denver Food Establishment Rules and Regulations and subject to inspection by the Food Safety Section of the Denver Department of Environmental Health’s Public Health Inspection Division.
The Liberal report recommended using the provincial liquor networks as infrastructure to sell cannabis. The paper estimated the country would need 2,700 retail outlets to supply the countries estimated three million users.
“The war on drugs has been a complete bust,” said Green leader Elizabeth May. “The traditional approach to preventing drug use has not only been a spectacular failure in itself, but has resulted in building a massive crime industry and has had catastrophic negative impacts on numerous young people, especially within poverty-stricken areas both within Canada and abroad.”
The Green Party has promised to remove cannabis from the drug schedule, create a production framework with independent growers, develop a taxation rate similar to tobacco, and create licensed distribution outlets for cannabis sale.
Canadians can register with Elections Canada ahead of the Oct. 19 vote.