Canada is one step closer to launching sales of legal marijuana after the country’s appointed Senate approved a legalization plan on Thursday.
Once finalized, the move will make our northern neighbor only the second country to permit widespread cannabis sales and use, and increases pressure on Congress to act on similar proposals for the United States. Canada’s elected House must still approve a final version of the plan, but that’s largely a procedural move since it passed a substantively similar version late last year. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals hold a majority in the House.
In a session that lasted over six hours on Thursday, the Senate voted 56 to 30, with one abstention, in favor of a version of the bill that includes several dozen amendments — including putting stricter rules in place on advertising for cannabis firms.
In approving the bill, Canadian senators acknowledged their nation now faces international scrutiny, including whether the law puts the country in violation of U.N. anti-drug treaties.
As part of legalization, the Canadian government will probably inform citizens that admitting to marijuana use might get them barred from crossing the border into the USA, which still classifies cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug with "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse," according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
After House approval, which is considered largely a procedural matter, Trudeau’s government expects to launch legal sales as soon as 10 to 12 weeks from now.
Canada’s approach differs from that taken in the USA, where nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis, but there hasn't been a substantive national discussion about the widely used drug.
Trudeau and his Liberal Party included marijuana legalization as part of their 2015 campaign, and his government has worked toward creating a structure for recreational cannabis sales and consumption since taking office. Medical marijuana has been legal in Canada since 2001, and many U.S.-based cannabis companies have jockeyed for position in that market with an eye toward broader legalization.
Recreational marijuana sales in Canada could be worth $3.3 billion by 2027, in part because businesses will find it easier to work nationally, instead of piecemeal like in the USA. Uruguay is the only other country to legalize marijuana; many countries have decriminalized it but prohibit sales.
“Marijuana prohibition is a failed U.S. policy experiment that was replicated by countries around the world,” said Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project who helped pass Colorado’s first-in-the-nation marijuana legalization plan. “It has caused far more problems than it has solved, and governments would be wise to follow Canada’s example by revisiting their marijuana policies and exploring alternatives.”
Congress does not yet appear ready to consider widespread cannabis legalization for the country, but lawmakers are considering a plan that would formally recognize state-level legalization. Nine states, including California, along with the District of Columbia, have legalized marijuana use. California alone has more residents than Canada, but there’s strong symbolism of a G-7 country approving pot use, legalization advocates say.
“The fact that Canada is beating the U.S. to the punch on legalization is another demonstration that federal prohibition of marijuana is an untenable position and Congress will have to act soon,” said Michael Collins, a spokesman for the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance.
There’s evidence change could be coming to the United States: Colo. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican, on Thursday teamed with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, to file new legislation barring the U.S. federal government from interfering with any state-approved marijuana legalization and permitting marijuana businesses to use the federal banking system.
The bill also has bipartisan House sponsors, but it's Gardner’s support that suggests the bill could win broader support in the Republican-controlled Congress. Gardner earlier this year extracted a promise from President Trump that state-level marijuana will be left alone by the federal government, although that promise could be rescinded.