The Cannabis Act passed in 2018 and with it, weed for recreational use became decriminalized instantaneously across the country.
But almost three years later, how well has the act fared?
Discussions surrounding cannabis decriminalization are not new. For decades, both advocates and opponents of cannabis legalization presented their arguments, with some regions and provinces being more permissive towards the substance than others.
Before the law passed, youth, particularly university students, were shown to have the highest cannabis user rates, with 33 per cent of people aged 20 to 24 having used cannabis in the past year. Cannabis use in younger teens was also a major concern.
With experts warning against the dangers of cannabis use in youth and a desire to eliminate the black market for weed, the government pushed to decriminalize cannabis use and small quantity possessions of under 30 grams.
Within a few months, dispensaries across London began to pop up and students, 18 years and older, soon had a variety of places to obtain legal weed.
Some saw it as a victory for public health and youth safety, but others were skeptical.
Robert Solomon, emeritus Western law professor, has been working in alcohol and drug law policy for over 40 years. He feels the legislation did not have the interest of the public at its core.
“I’m a critic of the new federal legislation because they didn’t just legalize cannabis, they commercialized cannabis,” he says. “And we know that when you commercialize a drug, profit wins out over public health.”
He draws comparisons to the governmental regulation of alcohol and tobacco—both of which have been extremely commercialized — to the fact they both have greatly contributed to death tolls in Canada.
Solomon’s views are supported by the fact that the main goals of the Cannabis Act have not yet been fulfilled. Youth consumption has not decreased significantly since the act passed. And it was only in late 2020 that most of the cannabis sold in Canada was legal, rather than illicitly sold.
“To the extent that we make cannabis more available, we’re going to increase the health and safety risks associated with cannabis,” Solomon argues. “To the extent to which we restrict availability, [we] will expand the market for illicit trade. That’s the simple reality. I think we have to say ‘what is the best mix of regulatory approaches.’”
Another important issue surrounding cannabis decriminalization is what to do with the people incarcerated for possession charges. Not only is it questionable for someone to be punished for an offence that is now legal, but the racial and economic disparities surrounding these convictions cannot be ignored.
Jacob Shelley, a Western law professor, agrees that cannabis arrests and charges have been disproportionately levied against Black and Indigenous individuals for years. He is also the co-director of the Health Ethics, Law & Policy (HELP) Lab at Western.
“Prior to the Cannabis Act, there was an inequitable use of criminal law, in the sense that individuals that were charged for cannabis were persons of colour, Indigenous, [or] from certain geographic areas,” Shelley says. “Whereas, if you’re rich and white, you might get a slap on the wrist and if you were brown or Black, you might get a jail sentence.”
To address this problem the government introduced Bill-C9, which offers pardons for people convicted of cannabis possession. While promising, its effectiveness is questionable. Of the over 10,000 people eligible for pardons, less than four per cent have actually been granted one. In fact, most Canadians are unaware that a pardon system even exists.
A pardon can also never fully rectify the wrongs of over-policing in communities of colour and poorer areas. Both Solomon and Shelley believe that discussing the problem and addressing it through social change would be more impactful.
In terms of solutions, both professors argue that the Cannabis Act can be fixed.
Solomon believes that while a trade-off exists, the best approach would be to raise the legal age of cannabis purchase to 21 and to not delegate cannabis distribution to the private sector. Essentially, he would not have commercialized cannabis, as alcohol and tobacco have been.
Shelley does not agree that the legal purchasing age should be raised, but argues that more education is required regarding cannabis use.
“Prohibitions and restrictions aren’t sufficient. There needs to be adequate education, information that goes along to help young people,” he says. “I think that the movement towards legalization was a smart idea. I think it’s been a positive overall for society. I think we need to have better conversations about this stuff and also why we rely on things like cannabis and alcohol.”
Regardless of the proposed amendments, the Cannabis Act remains a monumental piece of legislation that fundamentally changed how recreational drugs are viewed in society. But it still has a long way to go before it fully reaches its goals.