Marijuana is the dried, herbal material taken from the cannabis plant, which originated in Asia but is grown around the world. It can be smoked as dried leaves or flower buds, consumed as an oil (called hash oil), a resin (hash), from concentrates (shatter) or baked into foods or drinks.

People get a high from the chemical tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which many users find relaxing. It also intensifies the experience of sight, taste, sound and smell.

Canada made marijuana illegal in 1923 as part of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s Act to Prohibit the Improper Use of Opium and other Drugs. Today marijuana is listed as a controlled substance in Schedule II of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. As such, people found in possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana (without a medical exemption) face a fine of up to $1,000 and as many as six months in jail. There are more severe criminal penalties for trafficking and producing marijuana.

From Prohibition to Legalization

As of 2016, most countries also banned marijuana. The United Nations World Drug Report 2016 says 183 million people used marijuana in 2014, making it the world’s most commonly used illegal substance. In Canada, the government says half of all drug offences are for the possession and/or trafficking, production and distribution of marijuana. In 2014, nearly 58,000 such offences were reported in Canada and more than 24,000 people were charged.

Estimates of the value of the marijuana trade in Canada vary widely. One of the highest estimates comes from the federal government's Task Force on Marijuana Regulation and Legalization, which said in 2016 that the illegal trade is worth $7 billion in annual income to organized crime.

Critics of the prohibition – including marijuana growers, sellers and activists – have campaigned for decades to have the government reform the country's marijuana laws. Marc Emery, a Vancouver-based activist and founder of Cannabis Culture magazine and retail stores, has been at the forefront of this effort. In 2010, Emery was sentenced to a five-year prison sentence in the United States for selling marijuana seeds by mail to that country.

However, marijuana laws are rapidly evolving in the United States: By the end of 2016, recreational marijuana was legal for adults in eight US states and the District of Columbia, and 28 states had government-sanctioned, medical marijuana programs.

In 2016, surveys showed that between 40-70 per cent of Canadians wanted recreational marijuana use made legal. However, most people surveyed also wanted government controls over how the drug is sold or dispensed. A majority also feared that legalization would likely increase the amount of marijuana use by people under the age of 21.

Plans for Legalization in Canada

In 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government announced that it intended to legalize marijuana use and regulate its sale. In June 2016, it created the Task Force on Marijuana Regulation and Legalization led by Anne McLellan, a former health and justice minister. The task force held public consultations and spoke to provincial, territorial, municipal and indigenous governments in Canada.

In April 2017, the government introduced Bill C-45, aimed at legalizing and regulating the production and sale of marijuana no later than the summer of 2018. If Parliament passes the law, Canadians aged 18 and older will be allowed to buy marijuana by mail or in provincially-regulated retail stores. Adults will also be allowed to grow up to four marijuana plants at home, and to have up to 30 grams of dried cannabis (or the equivalent in non-dried form) in their possession in public.

Government regulations for growing and selling marijuana will include standards for labelling and packaging, and will also establish the tax rate for marijuana. If passed, the new law will make Canada the second country in the world after Uruguay, where marijuana is legal for adults across the land.

In April 2017, the government also introduced Bill C-46, which would create new criminal offences for the sale of marijuana to youth – with penalties of up to 14 years in prison. Bill C-46 would also establish new saliva-based, roadside testing to detect drug-impaired drivers.

The government has said marijuana prohibition “is not working,” that it does not stop young people from using it, thereby putting their health at risk, and that it leaves many Canadians with criminal records. The Liberal Party has said that criminal prosecutions around marijuana are expensive and also drive money into criminal enterprises.

The government has ruled out simply decriminalizing marijuana. That approach would mean keeping marijuana as an illegal substance while replacing criminal sanctions with fines or other lesser penalties. It has also ruled out decriminalizing marijuana prior to legalization, saying that would “give the green light” to illegal dealers to sell it openly.

Medical Marijuana

The changes to the recreational marijuana laws will not change Canada's medical marijuana system. Canadians can now legally access marijuana under existing Health Canada regulations. Marijuana has various therapeutic benefits, ranging from helping with nausea and vomiting during chemotherapy treatment, to the alleviation of chronic pain.

As of 2016, about 70,000 Canadians had registered with their health-care practitioner as medical-marijuana users. That means they can grow marijuana for their own medical use, or order it from one of approximately 35 licensed producers and have the marijuana mailed to them for medicinal purposes.

Barriers to legalization

Canada has signed three United Nations conventions on narcotic drug use: the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic In Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.

Those conventions mean Canada is obliged to criminalize the listed substances, which include marijuana or cannabis for non-medical and non-scientific uses. Legalizing marijuana would go against the drug conventions – although the 1961 convention does allow signatory nations to apply for the removal of a drug from the banned list.

As of 2016, the UN International Control Board has named a handful of countries with legalized marijuana and declared them to be in violation of the treaties. The Canadian government has not said what it will do about the conventions, only that it will work closely with its international partners to use an evidence-based approach to drug policy focused on public health, harm reduction and criminal sanctions.

How Marijuana Might be Regulated

If marijuana becomes legal for adults in Canada, the government will introduce a regulatory system to control its sale and consumption. It has studied the way it currently regulates alcohol and tobacco as possible models for marijuana.

A 2016 discussion paper prepared for the government notes that with tobacco, the government tries to reduce or eliminate use among Canadians. With alcohol, governments work to promote responsible use among adults. In both cases, government also works to keep young people from using the substances. In 2013, 15 per cent of adult Canadians smoked tobacco (down from 22 per cent in 2001).

Under a similar legalized system for marijuana, the government could focus on restricting marijuana from high-risk users (for example under-age people) and high-risk situations (such as driving). It could set a minimum age for purchase and create taxation and pricing that discourage use. It could create new laws to punish people who sell marijuana to minors, as adolescents have rapidly developing brains that can be harmed by regular marijuana use. Research presented by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse indicates that chronic use (especially if started in adolescence) is associated with problems in memory, thinking and paying attention. It could also increase the risk of psychosis, depression, anxiety and lung cancer (if smoked).

The discussion paper says the legalization experiences in the American states of Colorado and Washington “suggest very strongly” that Canada take steps to limit marketing and advertising for marijuana.

The government could also set maximum legal levels for tetrahydrocannabinol(THC), the psychoactive part of marijuana. Research shows that current levels are around 12 to 15 per cent – up from three per cent in the 1980s. Marijuana-based products like shatter can reach 80 to 90 per cent. A 2016 report by the US Surgeon General said the changing nature of marijuana, including its addictiveness due to the rapidly increasing potency of the modern product, poses a health risk to consumers.

The Canadian government will also have to determine how marijuana can be sold, as it can be smoked or vaped, or consumed in edibles such as candies, creams or brownies. The discussion paper says the existing legal framework for medical marijuana (Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations) could offer a template for regulating the production and distribution of recreational marijuana.

Laws against driving with drugs and alcohol already prohibit marijuana-impaired driving. However, no roadside test exists that is comparable to an alcohol-detection breathalyzer. Currently, police can demand roadside sobriety tests if they think a driver is impaired by drugs. A drug-recognition officer at the police station can further demand a bodily fluid (usually urine) to take for analysis.

The Canadian Medical Association (CMA), which represents the country's doctors, has urged the federal government to ban marijuana for people under 21, and to limit its use for people under 25. The CMA also wants the government to slowly phase-in any legalized system, perhaps with pilot programs tested in certain regions of the country.

Pardons for Past Convictions

There have been calls for the government, along with legalizing marijuana, to pardon or suspend the records of tens of thousands of Canadians previously convicted of marijuana offences, whose records hamper their ability to travel, apply for jobs and volunteer with charities. The government says it is looking at options for “less serious” cases, but has said there will be no general amnesty for past marijuana convictions.