(image by Kristin Rollins)
by Charles A. de Azagra
For readers who haven’t been paying attention, the North American consensus on marijuana policy is in the midst of a bit of a shakeup. Canada’s new Prime Minister-elect, Justin Trudeau, has just led his formerly “third-most-popular” Liberal Party to an overwhelming victory over both of Canada’s other major political parties. They now have control of 184 out of 338 seats – a net increase of 150 seats –making them the first political party to ever move from a third-place plurality to a first-place majority in the Canadian Parliament. The incoming parliament will also be the most diverse in history, with women and minority representation gaining a stronger presence. However, the historic significance of this election is potentially much greater when considering the effects on marijuana public policy.
According to the Liberal Party’s successful campaign platform, Canada’s current marijuana prohibition policy is defunct, with Liberal candidates openly advocating an end to prohibition in order to reduce the number of people with criminal records, lower the prison population, and curb criminal control of the black market that could otherwise be adding tax revenue. The Liberal party now has a chance to implement for their country what four enterprising states and the District of Columbia have already attempted: legalizing, regulating, and taxing the consumption, sale, and production of marijuana for recreational use, not to mention the 23 states that have already moved to legalize marijuana for medicinal use.
With the party poised to dominate the political agenda of Canada’s next parliament, there is a growing consensus that major policy reform related to marijuana will take place very soon. Just how soon, however, is a matter of some skepticism and debate. The implementation of a completely new and detailed regulatory regime is likely going to end up being a costly venture in terms of dollars, man hours, and information capital, all vital to creating and maintaining a regulatory regime that balances the concerns of a health-conscious public with the autonomous rights of its citizens to choose what is best for themselves and their families without the fear of lawful sanction.
Furthermore, Policy-makers will need to agree on a set of far-reaching common standards to regulate marijuana consumption effectively, including: the approved legal age of consumption, the ability to grow marijuana’s on private property for personal cultivation, an effective tax rate, and the range to which and under what specific conditions the various edible and concentrated products of the cannabis flower can be marketed. There’s also the matter of regulating legal intoxication from marijuana consumption when behind the wheel. This set of reform decisions will also require a substantial amount of scientific and social inquiry to strike a necessary balance required between public health and autonomy concerns. Despite this, Trudeau seems confident that he and his Liberal party allies will succeed, though the time table for reaching legal reform in Canada realistically stretches from months to years.
Canada’s close economic, social, demographic, cultural, and geographic ties to the United States will combine to increase pressure on the tide of marijuana policy debate, especially given the significant shifts in public opinion about marijuana use and the rise of maverick, state-level movements to develop effective models of regulation and taxation – policy experiments that have mostly escaped Federal legal push-back from the Obama administration. The experience of states like Colorado, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, along with the emerging “Canadian Model,” will serve to inform and influence the shape of a realistic approach to Federal marijuana reform.
It has become increasingly clear that American politicians can no longer ignore the marijuana issue, as evidenced by its growing force as an election issue in the 2016 Presidential campaign. And if Canada’s Liberal party sweep has taught us anything, it’s that principled and researched stances on marijuana reform have the ability to capture the attention of a public increasingly concerned about the societal costs of marijuana prohibition. The political capital around this issue only seems to be getting larger, and the first political elites to cash in on the issue are likely to benefit the most. The smart money now is on whichever political machine makes the first move.
Charles A. de Azagra is a Master’s candidate in Public Policy at the College of William & Mary and an an Associate Editor of the William & Mary Policy Review.
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