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Canada’s legalisation experience

Opinion Piece

by Matthew Elrod, Victoria, BC, Canada

Matthew Elrod

It’s been fascinating to watch the debate over cannabis law reform in New Zealand from Canada, especially the arguments based on how well or how poorly legal regulation has been playing out in my country. It’s also interesting — and amusing — to read the sometimes apocalyptic or pollyannaish predictions about what will happen in New Zealand if voters endorse the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill (CLCB), with no regard for evidence from overseas.

It might have appeared out of the blue when Canada legalised cannabis almost two years ago, but we were finally following the unanimous recommendations of a non-partisan senate committee from 2002.

We had been spending about $328 per consumer year on law enforcement, failing to avoid about $20 per consumer year in social costs. Canadian youth were among the heaviest consumers in the industrialised world. They found cannabis easier to obtain than alcohol, were twice as likely to try cannabis than try tobacco before they graduated from high school, and their average age of initiation was 14.

Our Cannabis Act is similar to your CLCB, but less restrictive. For example, Canadians are allowed to purchase and possess 30 grams of cannabis, whereas the CLCB proposes a 14g limit. Canadians may shop at stores or online, and purchase edibles and extracts.

As one might expect, cannabis legalisation has fallen short of our most optimistic expectations in Canada, but I’m pleased to report that we haven’t suffered the societal collapse prophesised by the drug-war doomsayers.

According to Statistics Canada, “Between 2018 and 2019 cannabis use increased, particularly among persons aged 25 and older (13.1 percent to 15.5 percent) and among males (17.5 percent to 20.3 percent). The corresponding rates for 15- to 24-year-olds (27.6 percent to 26.4 percent) and females (12.3 percent to 13.4 percent) remained constant. Whereas use among 15- to 17-year-olds declined (19.8 percent to 10.4 percent).” Only seniors seem to be using more, but they may just be more honest about it.

Despite the somewhat rocky and uneven establishment of the legal market across our provinces, the illicit market for cannabis is roughly half the size it was before legalisation. Online and retail store sales reached $908 million ($NZ1.04 billion) in 2019. It’s worth noting that Canadians won a constitutional right to grow and use cannabis for medicinal purposes two decades ago, so large, licensed producers got a head start on the “craft” and micro-producers now entering the marketplace.

As has been the case in the US states that have legalised cannabis, we haven’t seen an increase in workplace or traffic accidents. I see the “nope” campaigners fret that about 13 percent of Canadian consumers with valid driver’s licences report driving within two hours of use, but that figure hasn’t changed from 2018.

The Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health endorsed legalisation, writing: “We examined the evidence around the risks and harms associated with cannabis use and concluded that legalisation, accompanied by strict health-focused regulation, is the most promising means of reducing those risks and harms.”

Indeed, cannabis prohibition competes and interferes with education, research, treatment and harm reduction. Canada invests surplus cannabis tax revenue into reducing the relatively minor social costs of cannabis use. It’s encouraging to see that the CLCB does the same.

The referendum isn’t asking voters to approve of non-medical cannabis use. It’s asking voters to choose between spending hundreds of millions annually to maintain a failed prohibition foisted on New Zealand by the US and a racially-charged moral panic in the early 20th century, or adapting an evidence-based model from early 21st century Canada. From up here, the correct answer seems painfully obvious.

  1. Tony says:

    Thank you Matthew. I fear that unless the referendum is approved, I risk my first criminal conviction at age 65+

    1. G R Webb says:

      Why? Get prescribed medicinal cannabis.

      1. Matthew Elrod says:

        Easier said than done. Only a few, very expensive, imported cannabis-based medicines are available by prescription … if one is lucky enough to find one of the few knowledgeable doctors willing to prescribe it. Herbal cannabis is not legally available, but if you are terminally ill, you might be able to get a note from a doctor which you can use in your defence for possessing illicit cannabis.

      2. Tony says:

        I could be wrong but currently, “SativexTM is the only medicinal cannabis product that is an approved medicine. PHARMAC does not currently fund any medicinal cannabis products. PHARMAC has only considered one funding application for a cannabis-based medicine (Sativex).”

        The cost is prohibitive for most people who may need it. Legalisation will result in medicinal cannabis being more widely available and if not then recreational cannabis can fill the void.

        G R Webb, it is unusual that a stereotype is so apt but from your writing you present as a caricature of an opinionated, conservative, grumpy old white man.