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Cannabis in Canada

Five years of legalization

Since October 17, 2018, anyone in Canada over 18 years old can go to a licensed shop and legally buy cannabis products with a maximum dose of 10mg of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol). In 2018, Canada became the second country in the world to legalize cannabis for recreational use. After Canada, Thailand legalized cannabis in 2018 and decriminalized it in 2022. As of today, Uruguay, Canada, and Thailand are the only countries in the world to have legalized, decriminalized and authorized licensed sale of cannabis. In 2020, the Quebec government declared that it had raised the legal age to obtain any cannabis from 18 to 21. Nadine Yousif, BBC news correspondent in Toronto, identified three main goals of legalization in 2018: move marijuana users away from an illicit market, create a legal market where the drug cannot go to minors; and develop the industry to benefit the country’s economy. Hovering between the desire of building a strong industry on a legal market and preserving public safety and health, Michael Armstrong, cannabis business researcher at Brock University, describes, when interviewed by the BBC, the reform as a mixed success.

Concerning the economic objective, Yousif states that the “country’s cannabis industry is struggling for survival.” Even though the cannabis recreational market in Canada is valued in the billions as Deloitte Canada states in 2022 it added $43.5 billion since 2018, the cannabis industry makes little to no profit. George Smitherman, former Ontario Deputy Premier and head of the Cannabis Council of Canada, explains to Yousif the absence of a “global road map,” or the fact so few other countries have legalized cannabis,  makes it impossible for the industry to expand past a certain point, over which production exceeds demand. For Armstrong, it resumes to a classic “boom and bust” situation: the initial lack of production and high demand led to a surplus and so a downsizing. So much that today, only 20 per cent of cannabis related businesses have a “positive cashflow” according to Smitherman. In 2023, the cannabis industry is effectively struggling to survive. For example, Aurora Cannabis, thriving in 2018, had to sell their headquarters back to Hershey Canada. Le Journal de Montréal describes that most cannabis manufacturers, such as Hexo, Cronos Group or Canopy Growth are struggling for benefits. Furthermore, many Canadian citizens who invested in the industry lost an estimated $131 billion. 

But the struggle also resides elsewhere. In late 2022, the Department of Public Safety stated that 33 per cent of the market remained illegal. Although the police observed 47,000 incidents in 2017 against only 16,000 in 2019, traffic has not stopped. Léa, who  used a pseudonym, a 16-year-old interviewed by Félix Morrissette-Beaulieu for Radio-Canada, said that it is “relatively easy” to get ahold of the drug. She started smoking at the age of 13.  Marie-José Michaud, coordinator of the prevention service Le Grand Chemin, explains that the illegal market adapted to the legalization. There are new ways of smoking that are gaining in popularity, for example, the wax pen, for example, is gaining in popularity: a vape-style way of smoking the drug with over three times the authorized amount of THC in it.

With the combined effect of the legalization and the evolution of the illicit market to stronger and more nocive products, a widespread consumption of cannabis could be expected. Statistics Canada explains that the use of cannabis increased from 22 per cent to 27 per cent between 2017 and 2022 for Canadians over 16, but the percentage of people consuming the drug did not change. In other words, the drug did not spread to a broader or younger audience, but its use became heavier. Pediatrician Richard Bélanger claims that smoking “did not diminish either” and Léa condemns a lack of education and information about drugs. Whereas Enquête Canadienne announced in 2021 that 93 per cent of consumers know of the addictive effects of cannabis against 64 per cent in 2017, this inquiry was only submitted to people already buying cannabis. Government issued packages with warnings and no advertisement may not be sufficient as a third of the market is illegal, and an additional 10 per cent cultivate their own plants. 

Overall, the reform’s success is debatable. For some, Canada has done something exceptional world wide; for others, the industry struggles, and public health concerns are still present. The Medical Association Journal describes the reform as “not a public health disaster” but has yet to show any positive aspects in the area. However, a reform often takes effect in the long term. Five years is, for many experts, way too short to correctly evaluate the efficiency of the bill in meeting the three main goals of 2018.