Cannabis conversation urged at North American Leaders Summit
© Privateer Holdings

At the end of this week, President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaPoll: Majority of Dem voters happy with their choices among 2020 contenders No presidential candidate can unite the country Trump says he disagrees with 'send her back' chant MORE, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto will meet in Ottawa for the North American Leaders’ Summit. Since the summit was first convened in 2005, this regular gathering has been used to discuss shared economic and security issues, like trade and resource management. This year, however, these three leaders have a unique chance to address the future of an industry that will be among the defining political and economic forces of the next ten years, if not the next fifty. That industry is legal cannabis.

It might sound like the start of a corny political joke: Three world leaders walk into a bar, then stage an ad hoc meeting of the Choom Gang. Dismissive attitudes such as these shut down much-needed conversations before they even begin. In reality, legal cannabis is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world, fueling billions of dollars in economic activity annually. Already, 25 U.S. states have some form of legal cannabis. Australia, Canada, and multiple countries in South America and the European Union have, or are in the process of launching, national medical cannabis programs. Mexico’s Supreme Court recently created a pathway for patients to access medical cannabis there. It seems like every week, another state legislature, national government, or constitutional court is moving to expand access for sick patients, recreational consumers, or both. These reforms reflect evolving global attitudes that will continue to influence additional policy changes in the coming years.

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Some of these issues can and should be dealt with at the local level, such as where businesses are permitted to operate in a certain city. But others have international implications and need to be addressed through international dialogue. As additional countries embrace reform in the coming years, policymakers will have to reckon with necessarily global issues like trade, compassionate access, and navigating anachronistic treaties that condemn cannabis (an issue that has confronted Canadian policymakers in recent weeks).

Previous attempts have been made to prompt these discussions. In April, the United Nations General Assembly convened a special session on the topic of drugs, where cannabis was discussed. But the mandate of the meeting was too broad and failed to achieve meaningful consensus.

That's where the North American Leaders’ Summit comes in—a unique opportunity for three countries all in the process of reforming their cannabis laws. Canada, where the right to medical cannabis is constitutionally guaranteed and a well-developed commercial industry is already serving thousands of patients, plans to legalize adult recreational use next year, and Mexico is considering introducing a medical program. Meanwhile, voters in numerous U.S. states will vote on cannabis laws in the November election. The arrival of recreational cannabis for responsible adult consumption in California or Massachusetts, two states where such proposals are on the ballot, would be a game-changer for federal policy.

Although all three countries are undergoing reform, each leader comes at the issue from a different perspective, which would make for a nuanced discussion about the various issues policymakers must confront. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the creation of a regulated and controlled adult recreational program an important part of his election campaign and has spoken about consuming cannabis recreationally as recently as 2010. President Pena Nieto has emphasized the toll of drug war violence on his country and displayed international leadership when, earlier this year, he convened a series of national debates for science and policy experts to discuss the potential of cannabis-derived medicines.

If anything, President Obama could learn from his peers on this issue. He's spoken powerfully about the disproportionate impact of the drug war on young people of color, tasking his administration with lessening inequities in the criminal justice system. But he's also shied away from implementing the kind of grand policy reform that could stand alongside his other accomplishments as his legacy. Joking about his college stoner days at the White House Correspondents' Dinner might reflect newly relaxed attitudes toward cannabis, but it doesn’t do anything to ensure patients have access to the treatments they need or that the thousands of cannabis businesses in the United States can operate without fear of prosecution. Beginning a cannabis conversation with two other reform-minded leaders to look the future of legalization in the face could prompt more drastic, yet much needed, legal change.

By the end of the decade, cannabis prohibition will be a thing of the past throughout North America. It's time for the agenda to embrace that reality. A small meeting of leaders committed to seriously considering the future of legal cannabis, at the North American Leader's Summit or elsewhere, would be a welcome start. An aligned cannabis policy would make a strong contribution to the security and economic future of the entire continent.

Brendan Kennedy is CEO of Privateer Holdings, the first private equity firm investing in the legal cannabis industry.