How Canada Legalized Weed

It’s one of Justin Trudeau’s few policy wins, but he doesn’t deserve all—or even much—of the credit.
Two people hold a modified design of the Canadian flag with a marijuana leaf in in place of the maple leaf during the 420 Toronto
Image via CP.

Holy shit. We made it. Weed will be legal in Canada on Wednesday. Ninety years of cannabis prohibition in the garbage where it belongs. Savour this unforgettable moment—at least until you space on it ten minutes after your first legitimate draw.

Anyway, the dark ages are over now so let’s never dwell on it again. But it’s worth tipping our hats to everyone who helped make this happen. Before you take a toke on Wednesday, thank a medicinal cannabis activist, because they’re the ones who did all the legal legwork.


Cannabis was first outlawed in 1923 (largely based on racist reasoning). Although a 1972 Royal Commission recommended it be decriminalized, there was no legal thaw around its use until the turn of the 21st century. In 2000, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that a blanket ban on all cannabis consumption violated the constitutional rights of those who used it for medicinal purposes. Terrence Parker’s case is the thin end of the wedge that would eventually split apart cannabis prohibition in Canada. Once the federal government accepted that it would have to sanction some cannabis use (and production), full legalization was only a matter of time. (Roughly 18 years, as it turns out.)

In 2001 the federal government brought in the Marihuana for Medical Access Regulations, its first set of laws codifying legal cannabis use. This allowed licensed medicinal users to grow their own plants, or purchase flower from a licensed grower. Both Liberal prime ministers Jean Chretien and Paul Martin tried to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of cannabis, but each were thwarted: the former by pressure from the US Drug Enforcement Agency, and the latter by the 2004 federal election.

But by the mid-aughts, the political will to liberalize drug policy in Canada had vanished. In the first year of his first minority government, Stephen Harper increased criminal penalties for possession and trafficking. Anyone illegally growing dope faced up to 14 years in prison.


While going extra aggro on non-violent drug offences was near and dear to Conservative hearts, neither legal precedent nor the national zeitgeist were on their side. The 2011 R v. Mernagh decision by the Ontario Superior Court gutted federal restrictions on cannabis so thoroughly it risked legalizing cannabis production all over Ontario and possibly the whole country. The ruling was overturned in early 2013 by the Ontario Court of Appeal, but it was clear by this time that the country’s cannabis laws were untenable.

The writing was on the wall by 2012, when the Liberals picked up full cannabis legalization as a party policy. The Conservatives, meanwhile, opted to double-down: they changed medical regulations to abolish all personal production licenses and force patients to register with licensed producers. Ironically, more than just setting the Crown up for a slam-dunk legal challenge, this sowed the seeds of a commercial cannabis industry by mandating mass cannabis production.

Regulations continued to fall apart in court. A Supreme Court of Canada ruling in 2015 established that edibles, oils, and other concentrates were legitimate forms of medicinal cannabis, and thus legal to produce and possess—further bolstering and diversifying the production (and marketing) of cannabis in Canada.

By the time the Federal Court of Canada ruled in 2016 that medicinal users could grow their own supply, Justin Trudeau was prime minister and the full repeal of prohibition was already underway. But it does hammer home the point that legalization is an elegantly simple solution to this extremely stupid policy problem.


It’s difficult now to place the role legalization had during the 2015 election campaign. It wasn’t a central plank, but the promise of legal weed—along with electoral reform, deficit spending, peacekeepers, reconciliation, and a new Trudeau—helped to amplify the Liberals’ branding as the true champions of progressive Canadiana. Now it’s the twilight of Trudeau’s first term, and legal cannabis is one of the few landmark initiatives to actually be carried through. Perhaps it’s to help us cope with the about-face on everything else.

The journey of the Cannabis Act alone is another story. After a year of consultations with Canadians, in early 2017 the government brought in its first draft of weed law. (It also updated the Impaired Driving Act to vastly increase police powers to detect drugged drivers.) The Act set out the broad parameters of recreational use: anyone 18 and older can possess up to 30 grams in public, with the provinces able to tinker with that minimum legal age and whatever additional details they wanted. The whole thing sparked anticipation for a legalization date of July 1, 2018, but the Senate nearly torpedoed it at the 11th hour. The bill ultimately passed its final reading in June 2018—too late to save your Canada Day BBQ, but just in time to blow up your Halloween.

About the provinces: the feds get all the credit, but it’s the provinces doing all the heavy lifting. As a result, legal cannabis looks a little different everywhere in the country: legal age runs from 18 (Alberta) to 21 (Quebec), and in Manitoba and Quebec you won’t be able to grow your own plants. Also, in Ontario, the new Ford government spiked the old Liberal plan for a provincial monopoly less than a month out from the first day of legal sales. It will be sold in private stores, but not until sometime in April. Have fun!


So it’s been a long time coming, but here we are at last. Ironically, now that weed is legal it is likely to be policed more heavily than ever before. The cops can’t bust you just on account of holding a joint, but they can throw the book at you if try to buy in bulk or try to sell any on your own. Anyone who felt legalization should involve addressing the injustice of the drug war is justified in feeling less than euphoric about how many weed corporations are run by former prohibitionists—especially while those convicted under drug offences which no longer exist have no guarantees of amnesty.

The story isn’t over. The fight for amnesty continues, and legalization continues to unfold. Arguably the real cannabis boom is coming on October 17, 2019, when edibles are fully regulated. Beyond that, one hopes that the end of one ridiculous drug prohibition might be the begin of the end of them all. At a convention in Halifax earlier this year, Liberal membership signalled they would be interested in decriminalizing all drug use in Canada in the interests of harm reduction. The Liberal brass laughed it off—Trudeau has been emphatic that there is no interest in further changes to federal drug policy—but if the legalization of cannabis is successful it does seem to be the next logical step. North America remains mired in an opioid crisis, and Portugal has seen tremendous success in treating drug abuse as a social and medical problem instead of a criminal one. The prohibitions around medical use of other psychedelic drugs are also finally thawing; the therapeutic use of MDMA, LSD, ketamine, and psilocybin mushrooms may yet herald a revolution in psychiatry. This doesn’t mean we will ever see a day when the government is sanctioning a full-scale acid production and retail industry, but it does mean, God willing, we will someday soon reach a point where all drug war is relegated to a museum along with old film reels of Reefer Madness.

A more humane way to live together isn’t hard to imagine. All the easier, now, with a little bit of grass.

Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.

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