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Whats the plan for Canadas Cannabis Legislation?

Those with longer memories may remember that back in 2003, Canada made a serious effort to decriminalize marijuana, which, ironically enough, was derailed through pressure from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.  Fast forward to today and the legalisation of medical marijuana is now a reality in Canada and the legalisation of recreational cannabis has been promised.  This time around, it would be rather difficult for the U.S. federal government to object to the Canadian plan, but the fact still remains that Canada is a signatory to U.N. treaties on drug control may be a stumbling block.

What the UN Treaties mean for Canada and legal cannabis.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made a firm pledge to legalize recreational cannabis, in fact he has set a deadline for the implementation of this policy, 1st July 2018. The problem is that Canada is obliged to give a year’s notice of its intention to withdraw from the three U.N. treaties in question and it failed to do so.  This creates an interesting situation in which the Canadian government basically has four options.

How long will recreational cannabis legislation be postponed for?

Canadian-cannabis-flagIn many ways, this would be the simplest option, with the added advantage of giving the Canadian provinces time to work out how they’re going to deal with the practicalities of legal pot.  At this point, it’s important to remember that there’s a big difference between the legalisation of weed per se and the right to puff away on legal pot wherever and whenever you so wish. In terms of public order, marijuana is, effectively, a cross between alcohol and tobacco in the sense that it has the mind-influencing effects of the former, while often being consumed in a similar way to the former with the analogous result that inconsiderate marijuana smokers, can inconvenience non-smokers with the smoke and smell they create.  While it would be nice to think that everyone would behave responsibly, the truth is that there does need to be some kind of formal structure in place to make sure that people do.

While this solution has many benefits, there are a couple of problems which come along with it.  First of all, Justin Trudeau has made a commitment and politicians generally like to be seen to be making good on their promises, particularly headline ones.  Secondly, delays can lead to disruption.  As the old saying goes, you can always turn a no into a yes, but not a yes into a no.  In other words, if one government legalizes recreational cannabis, it will be very difficult (albeit not impossible) for a successive government to reverse this, but if somehow recreational cannabis fails to be legalized during the current parliament, then a future government may simply pull back on the idea.

Treaties reform or change in constitution?canada-cannabis-legalising-cannabis

The treaties allow for the use of recreational cannabis if this is in a country’s constitution, as it is in Bolivia, where cannabis has been an integral part of indigenous culture for thousands of years.  In Canada, however, this approach would be fraught with challenges and complexities and might take longer than just delaying the implementation deadline and handing in the relevant notice.

The treaties allow the use of banned drugs for the purposes of scientific research so, in theory, the Canadian government could claim that the legalisation of recreational cannabis was part of some grand-scale sociology experiment to determine what the effect of such a move would be.  This would certainly be a creative interpretation of the treaty and hence raises the question of whether such an approach would be accepted by the U.N.  If the U.N. chose to push the point, Canada could find itself in a tricky situation, since it would presumably have to reverse the legalisation of recreational cannabis until such time as it could withdraw from the U.N. treaties.  Whether or not the U.N. would push the point is a very open question, but in theory it could.

In practical terms, a law only has meaning if it is enforced and it’s hard to see what the U.N. would have to gain by picking a fight with Canada over the legalisation of recreational cannabis, particularly since it would open up a whole can of worms with the U.S.A.  In the context of the legalisation of recreational cannabis, the key difference between the U.S.A. and Canada is that in the U.S.A. the federal government still officially treats marijuana as a banned substance, it simply leaves enforcement of the ban to the states, none of which are bound by U.N. treaties and hence, for practical purposes can effectively legalize the weed in their own back gardens.  In Canada, by contrast, the federal government, is openly in favour of the legalisation of recreational cannabis and hence is putting itself in breach of its obligations under the U.N. treaties.  It is, however, hard to selegalise-canadae how the U.N. could realistically attempt to sanction Canada for the legalisation of recreational cannabis, while continuing to ignore the fact that the U.S. federal government is essentially ducking out of its obligations under the U.N. treaties.

The fact that Justin Trudeau and his government have committed to the legalisation of recreational cannabis is a clear indication that there is the political will to make it happen and this time around it is realistically impossible for the U.S. to stand in their way.  We suspect that the likeliest outcome will be that Canada will simply go ahead with its plan to legalize recreational cannabis and bank on the fact that the U.N. will decide that picking a fight on the matter is simply more hassle than it’s worth.  With any luck, Canada’s stance will put pressure on the U.N. to update its drugs policy and the associated U.N. treaties to reflect the actual reality of cannabis’ place in the 21st century world, where many people appreciate its benefits both as a medical treatment and as a means of recreation.


MSNL Team / 10th August 2017

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