Will Canada’s decision to legalize marijuana be the catalyst for change in US?

Will Canada’s decision to legalize marijuana be the catalyst for change in US?
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Canadian lawmakers codified legislation, C-45, so that those over the age of 18 may legally possess, purchase, and grow personal use quantities of cannabis. The new national policy takes effect nationwide on October 17, 2018.

The law establishes a licensed, regulatory framework for the commercial production and retail distribution of marijuana to those ages 18 and older. Adults are also permitted under the policy to cultivate up to four marijuana plants per household for their own personal use. Those who grow or possess greater quantities, or who engage in the unlicensed distribution of cannabis, face either civil or criminal sanctions, depending on the severity of the activity.  

The policy change is a reflection of the strong public and political support in favor of legalization north of the border, and it fulfills a primary campaign pledge of Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who, as a candidate, acknowledged, “Marijuana prohibition does not work.


It traps too many Canadians in the criminal justice system for minor, non-violent offenses. At the same time, the proceeds from the illegal drug trade support organized crime and greater threats to public safety.”

To many political observers, Canada’s decision to ultimately part ways with cannabis criminalization is of little surprise. For decades, Canadian marijuana policy has been at odds with the United States’ prohibitive policies. For instance, Canadians first regulated the commercial cultivation of industrial hemp — a distinct species of marijuana that possesses zero psychoactivity and is primarily used for its fiber content — some two decades ago.

By contrast, the U.S. Controlled Substances Act still makes no legal distinction between marijuana and hemp, and it has only been within the last several months that Congressional leadership has begun any serious consideration of legislating such a change.

Canada also possess an extensive, federally licensed medical cannabis production and distribution program, which has been in place since 2001. Conversely, U.S. federal law continues to inappropriately define the cannabis plant as a schedule I controlled substance with “no currently accepted medical use.”

So will this latest policy change in any way influences U.S. policymakers to take steps toward similarly rethinking and amending America’s archaic and failed marijuana prohibition laws — laws that continue to result in the arrest of over 650,000 citizens annually? That remains to be seen. Like in Canada, U.S. voters strongly endorse such a change.

In fact, according to polling data reported earlier this week, 68 percent of registered voters “support the legalization of marijuana” — the highest percentage ever recorded in a nationwide, scientific poll. Further, this data shows that this support is largely non-partisan. Majorities of Democrats (77 percent), Independents (62 percent), and Republicans (57 percent) back legalization. However, unlike in Canada, voters’ sentiments have yet to be translated into political will.

Despite possessing bipartisan public support, federal efforts to significantly reform U.S. marijuana policy generally continue to languish in Congressional committees. One potential exception is the recently introduced States Act, which creates an exemption to the Controlled Substances Act for U.S. states and territories that legally regulate either the medical use or the adult use and distribution of marijuana.

It has received some limited backing from the president. But while the States Act is welcome step in the right direction, its proposed changes are relatively modest compared to the sort of sweeping reforms just enacted by our northern neighbor.

If history is any example, U.S. politicians will likely continue to take a “wait and see” approach before expressing a willingness to seriously consider such broader federal changes, such as removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act altogether. But they should not expect to voters to sit idly by.

The longer American politicians delay, and the more lawmakers elsewhere act, the greater the pressure both political parties will inevitably face from an electorate that has made up its mind and is running out of patience.

Paul Armentano is the deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. He is the co-author of the book, Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? and the author of the book, The Citizen’s Guide to State-By-State Marijuana Laws.