By any measure, cannabis prohibition in Canada has failed to meet the stated objective of reducing demand. Despite extensive enforcement efforts, cannabis remains the most frequently used illegal drug in Canada; among youth, it is the second-most-used psychoactive substance, after alcohol. Compared to other jurisdictions, rates of use among Canadian youth are high, and a significant illegal market in cannabis production and distribution continues to flourish in Canada.

How countries deal with non-medical use of cannabis is at a crossroads, in Canada and internationally. The global consensus that cannabis must be criminally prohibited is breaking down. Public opinion, and the position of politicians, is shifting as the costs mount; resources are being wasted to stigmatize and punish what many see as conduct not deserving of such penalties. The health harms of cannabis are significant but modest in comparison with other drugs such as alcohol. New approaches are emerging that aim to address public health concerns while eliminating well-documented health and social harms related to criminally prohibiting cannabis. These approaches include decriminalizing possession for personal use and creating legal, regulated markets with parameters aimed at controlling and monitoring cannabis production and sale.

It is time to consider alternative strategies for controlling cannabis markets. Frightening claims have been made repeatedly about the health and social harms of creating a legal, regulated market for cannabis control — but a review of the actual evidence shows these claims have been overstated. Now, Canadian public health organizations and others are calling for a comprehensive, public health approach to the production, distribution, product promotion and sale of cannabis. On October 19th 2015, Canadians elected a new government that pledged to create a legal regulated market for adult use cannabis.

Priorities for Action

  • The federal government should immediately amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to decriminalize possession of cannabis for one’s own personal use, as well as production for personal use.
  • The federal government should establish an expert commission to consult with provinces, municipal governments, First Nations, public health experts, civil society organizations (including groups representing people who use cannabis), business and law enforcement with a mandate to propose a public health framework for the legal regulation of the non-medical cannabis market in Canada.
  • Federal and provincial authorities should develop and implement monitoring and evaluation systems that can measure the health, economic and social impacts of a new regulated cannabis market. They should also provide support for social and clinical research that examines these impacts resulting from new and emergent regulations, in order to adjust regulatory schemes, if and when necessary, based on evidence.

Resources on Cannabis Regulation

Policy Brief: Suggested Amendments to the text of Bill C-45

Canadian Public Health Association

A New Approach to Managing Illegal Psychoactive Substances

Transform Drug Policy Foundation

How to Regulate Cannabis: A Practical Guide

Transnational Institute

The Rise and Decline of Cannabis Prohibition