What Canada learned about marijuana

The Canadian task force on legalizing marijuana toured other weed-friendly jurisdictions. The basic lesson: 'Expect surprises.'

Marijuana is pictured in a vending machine at the BC Pain Society in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday August 29, 2014. The society, which sells marijuana and supplies, is the first of its kind to integrate gift cards to be used at one of their 3 marijuana dispensing vending machines. (Ben Nelms/CP)

Marijuana is pictured in a vending machine at the BC Pain Society in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday August 29, 2014. The society, which sells marijuana and supplies, is the first of its kind to integrate gift cards to be used at one of their 3 marijuana dispensing vending machines. (Ben Nelms/CP)

The task force advising the government on how to go about legalizing marijuana is heading into largely uncharted territory; the only other country to do what Canada is poised to do was Uruguay, in 2013. So in shaping the 112-page report it released publicly on Tuesday, the nine-member Canadian task force, chaired by former justice minister Anne McLellan, embarked on “study tours” of two U.S. states that have already legalized weed, consulted with officials in Uruguay and examined specific practices in other jurisdictions, in search of smart policies to emulate and pitfalls to be avoided.

“The basic lessons are: expect surprises,” says McLellan. “We can look at what Colorado has done and the surprises they dealt with, we can look at Washington, we can look at Uruguay, but there will still be surprises.”

Among some 80 recommendations, tightly focused on public safety, regulation and killing off the illegal pot market, the task force walked through the good and bad of marijuana policy elsewhere, with particular attention to Colorado and Washington state, which legalized the drug in 2014 and 2012, respectively. McLellan points out that Uruguay, with a population of 3.5 million, faced different issues. “We went where we thought would be most useful for us, in terms of learning lessons and hopefully helping the government avoid unintended consequences,” she said.

To that end, she took half the task force members to Washington state, while vice-chair Mark Ware, director of clinical research at McGill University Health Centre, went with the others to Colorado. “The key takeaways for us were, ‘These are the mistakes we made; don’t make the same mistakes we did,’ ” he says. “Know that you’re going into territory that is relatively unfounded, and learn as you go.”

Officials in other jurisdictions told the Canadians to establish baseline measures at the outset on key markers such as visits to emergency rooms and hospitalization, incidents and charges reported by police, cultivation and manufacturing of marijuana, and traffic accidents, so they’d know exactly how things changed when the new law rolls out. “You build flexibility into the framework that allows you to adapt as you go,” Ware said.

Here are approaches other jurisdictions have taken on specific issues, which are highlighted in the task force report—often admiringly or admonishingly:

Advertising to Youth:

“In practice, it is difficult to separate marketing that is particularly appealing to youth from any other marketing. The Colorado officials with whom we met echoed this concern, noting that their partial restrictions for cannabis advertising made it challenging to avoid advertising that reaches, or is appealing to, youth.”

Edible Products:

Sales of these products soared 134 per cent in the first quarter of 2015 over the previous year in Colorado, the report notes, and the Canadian task force came away with several lessons from the rocky experience in that state:

“Expect edibles to have a broad appeal: Cannabis products such as brownies, cookies and high-end chocolates are attractive to novice users and those who do not want to smoke or inhale.”

“Control for level of THC and/or portion size.” Failure to do so, the task force notes, “has sometimes resulted in accidental overconsumption and overdoses.”

“Ensure that cannabis edibles can be clearly distinguished. It can be a challenge to differentiate between cannabis edibles and cannabis-free products, leading to a risk that individuals, including children, inadvertently consume them.”

“In October 2016, Colorado took further steps to improve the safety of packaging of edibles by requiring that all standardized servings be imprinted with a symbol containing the letters THC and prohibiting packaging that appeals to children.”

Public education:

“In Washington and Colorado, funding for their respective education campaigns came from the states’ cannabis revenues. As a result, campaigns did not begin until two years after legalization. Officials from both states strongly advised starting educational campaigns as soon as possible.”

Age limits:

“The science indicates that risks from marijuana usage are elevated until the brain fully matures (i.e., when someone reaches about age 25). For context, age limits for alcohol and tobacco purchases in Canada vary across provinces and territories—either 18 or 19 years of age. In Colorado and Washington, the state governments have chosen to align the minimum age for purchasing marijuana with the minimum age for purchasing alcohol, 21 years.”

Manner of sale:

“The early experiences of Colorado and Washington state suggest very strongly that the government should take steps to avoid the commercialization of legalized marijuana, including the active promoting and marketing of marijuana, leading to widespread use. Preventing widespread use—or ‘normalization’—is especially important when considering the need to decrease rates of use amongst Canadian youth.”

“The distribution model could also have more direct consequences for health and safety. For example, in recognition of the more serious impairment that results when alcohol and marijuana use are combined, both Washington and Colorado do not allow marijuana to be sold in stores that also sell alcohol.”


“In both Colorado and Washington, public consumption is not allowed. To address consumption in public, some jurisdictions, such as Uruguay and Holland, allow venues for the legal consumption of marijuana, such as ‘coffee shops’ or clubs.”

Medical vs. recreational use:

“Limited experiences in other jurisdictions where separate medical and recreational markets coexist provide some interesting insights. For example, in Colorado, several stakeholders noted that the co-existence of retail and medical markets was problematic as it creates dual standards (e.g., different minimum ages, purchase quantities and taxation) and contributes to the grey market, therefore complicating regulation and enforcement. Some stakeholders have said that if they had the chance, they would have proceeded with recreational use only, instead of a dual recreational and medical system.”

Home cultivation:

“There was a recognition that banning home cultivation altogether would lead to increased criminalization of individuals and growth of the illicit market. Submissions pointed to the United States, where Alaska and Colorado allow for modest levels of cultivation for personal use. Some have argued that home growers should be required to pay a modest licensing fee.”


“This balance could be adjusted strategically. A lower tax rate, initially, could help to avoid repeating the experience in Washington, where a high tax at the start of legalization, combined with a shortage of legal product, strengthened the existing illicit market. Taxes could be adjusted over time to reflect changes in market conditions.”


“Several public health stakeholders also recommended plain packaging for cannabis products, similar to the approach taken by Australia for tobacco products and which are soon to be applied to tobacco products in Canada. Plain packaging refers to packages without any distinctive or attractive features and with limits on how brand names are displayed (e.g., font type, colour and size).”

Impaired driving:

“Organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) have recommended that the federal government amend the Criminal Code to create a per se impaired driving offence for having care and control of a motor vehicle with a THC level above a prescribed limit. MADD believed that limit should be set at a level akin to the .05 per cent blood alcohol content (BAC) limit for drinking and driving and recommended that the federal government enact a system of mandatory roadside saliva testing for cannabis and other commonly used drugs, adapting the model of Europe and Australia.”

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