Canada Is on the Brink of Making Marijuana Legal

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Justin Trudeau, Canada's new prime minister, intends to establish a Colorado-style system for regulating the recreational grass market. Steve Dipaola/Reuters

Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau, Canada's new prime minister, ran on a promise to legalize marijuana. The Liberal platform includes this plank (bold added):

We will legalize, regulate and restrict access to marijuana.

Canada’s current system of marijuana prohibition does not work. It does not prevent young people from using marijuana and too many Canadians end up with criminal records for possessing small amounts of the drug.

Arresting and prosecuting these offenses is expensive for our criminal justice system. It traps too many Canadians in the criminal justice system for minor, non-violent offenses. At the same time, the proceeds from the illegal drug trade support organized crime and greater threats to public safety, like human trafficking and hard drugs.

To ensure that we keep marijuana out of the hands of children, and the profits out of the hands of criminals, we will legalize, regulate, and restrict access to marijuana.

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.

We will create a federal/provincial/territorial task force, and with input from experts in public health, substance abuse, and law enforcement, will design a new system of strict marijuana sales and distribution, with appropriate federal and provincial excise taxes applied.

"While U.S. states led the way by becoming the first places in the world to legalize and regulate marijuana in 2012," says Marijuana Majority Chairman Tom Angell, "it looks like Canada could soon leapfrog ahead of us and become the first country in North America to legalize cannabis nationwide."

Canada already allows medical use of marijuana, and last June the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled that qualifying patients have a right to obtain not just dried buds but any form of cannabis they find useful. Now the Liberals intend to eliminate penalties for marijuana use and establish something like a Colorado-style system for licensing and regulating marijuana businesses serving the recreational market. "We're going to get started on that right away," Trudeau told CTV last month.

Legalization is also supported by the New Democratic Party, which currently controls the second largest bloc in Parliament but fell to third place in the recent  elections, as well as the Green Party, the Libertarian Party and the Marijuana Party. Bloc Québécois supports decriminalization of possession for personal use.

By contrast, the outgoing prime minister, Tory Stephen Harper, is an unreconstructed drug warrior who recently called marijuana "infinitely worse" than tobacco, although he had trouble backing up that claim. Harper tried to use Trudeau's support for legalization against him, apparently with little success. The Liberals won 184 seats in the 338-member House of Commons (up from 34), compared with the Conservatives' 99 (down from 159).

A recent CBC survey found that 56 percent of Canadians favor legalizing marijuana, while another 30 percent would eliminate criminal penalties for marijuana use. Although only 38 percent of Conservatives supported legalization, another 37 percent favored decriminalization, and just 26 percent wanted to maintain criminal penalties for users.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine.