How is legalization working for Canadians?
On Thursday, the Canadian government kicked off a review of how legalization has unfolded since the country launched adult use cannabis sales in October 2018. During a press briefing, Minister of Health Jean-Yves Duclos and Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett discussed the next steps for the review, which coincided with the government’s release of an engagement paper titled “Taking stock of progress: Cannabis legalization and regulation in Canada.”
“Canada is the first major industrialized country to provide legal and regulated access to cannabis for non-medical purposes, signalling a shift away from the reliance on prohibitive measures to deter cannabis use, and the adoption of an evidence-informed public health and public safety approach,” the paper began.
As the Cannabis Act was drafted, law and policy makers acknowledged that for cannabis legalization to be successfully implemented, the framework would “require ongoing monitoring to assess early impacts, and flexibility to adapt and respond to emerging policy needs,” the paper notes. The mandated review was set to begin three years after the start of legal sales, but was delayed.
The paper addresses growing pains in Canada’s cannabis industry, which have made international headlines in recent years.
“The cannabis market is still in its infancy and is subject to ongoing market corrections. In response to downward pressure on wholesale prices, licence holders are seeking new investors and are restructuring in order to help them compete in an increasingly competitive market,” the paper notes. “Some licence holders are exiting the industry altogether or are reducing the number of sites they operate.”
The paper includes data related to some of the goals of the Act, which include preventing youth consumption, eliminating the illegal market, and reducing cannabis arrests, for example. And it poses discussion questions throughout, including “What is your view of the current legislative and regulatory restrictions in place to safeguard public health?” and “What alternative measures, if any, could the government consider to better meet the needs of racialized, under-represented or Indigenous communities within the cannabis licensing program?”
One of the paper’s focal points is on how legalization affects youth use.
“Young people are at increased risk of experiencing harms from cannabis, such as mental health problems, including dependance disorders related to anxiety and depression. Public education awareness activities have been and continue to be critical to this effort to increase the knowledge among the youth,” Bennett said Thursday.
“While a lot of progress has been made on the implementation of the Cannabis Act and its dual objectives of protecting public health and maintaining public safety, we need to assess the work that has been done and learn how and where to adjust to meet these goals,” she added.
On the topic of the illicit market, the paper notes that illegal cannabis sales are “a source of profit for many organized crime groups,” and emphasizes the role of online sellers in complicating enforcement efforts.
“In contrast to the notable decline of unlicensed brick and mortar stores operating in Canada, disrupting illegal online cannabis sales is an ongoing challenge. Policing online activity is complicated – a website can be created in one country, hosted in another, on a domain name registered in yet a third, while selling a product in multiple jurisdictions,” the paper highlights. “Additionally, websites can be set up with ease, and can replace those that have been seized or shut down by law enforcement.”
The paper notes that some local leaders and law enforcement officials have shared concerns about home cultivation for medical purposes, which allows for more than the four plant limit in the adult use program.
“Specifically, there is concern that some within the medical access program could be using their licence as a cover for the production and diversion of cannabis to the illegal market,” the paper notes.
The paper also highlights that Health Canada engages with members of law enforcement “24/7,” both through a dedicated hotline and in “collaboration on special projects.” To give a sense of the scope of responses, between 2020 and 2021, Health Canada fielded more than 2,800 requests for “address searches to support investigations in Ontario and Quebec alone.”
The scope of the review has been expanded to include additional areas, including environmental and broader social impacts.
“Getting the scope of the review right was much more important than the timeline. If we’d followed the legislation to a ‘T’ — both in relation to the three-year timeline, but also the considerations that are set out in the legislation — we would have missed a major opportunity to get this right,” said Member of Parliament Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who also serves as co-chair of the cannabis caucus.
The government is also engaging with Canadians through an online questionnaire that will be open until November 21.