The maple leaf — the ubiquitous symbol of Canada — may soon give way to the marijuana leaf. Joining the countries of Uruguay and Georgia, Canada has legalized marijuana for recreational use — with restrictions, of course.
In late 2013, Uruguay officially legalized marijuana. It did not, however, leave things up to the free market. The government controls the marijuana market from beginning to end, including price, quality, and production volume. Consumers, sellers, and distributors all have to be licensed by the government. Foreign visitors to Uruguay do not have the right to buy or smoke marijuana. Citizens can grow as many as six marijuana plants at home and produce a maximum of 480 grams (17 oz.) of marijuana per year. Cannabis clubs of 15 to 45 members are legal, and can grow a maximum of 99 marijuana plants annually. Companies can obtain a government license to cultivate marijuana if they meet certain criteria. Individuals 18 and older can purchase as much as 40 grams (1.4 oz.) of marijuana per month at state-licensed pharmacies. Marijuana users are registered in a national database and their marijuana consumption is tracked. The government tracks every gram of marijuana sold.
It’s not exactly marijuana freedom, but at least ordinary marijuana users no longer have to worry about being arrested, fined, or imprisoned for possessing a plant.
Late last year, the Georgian Constitutional Court decriminalized the use of marijuana, opting to fine users instead of jailing them. In July of this year, Georgia became the second country to effectively legalize marijuana after the court abolished administrative punishments for its use, effective immediately. The court ruled in favor of leaders of the Girchi political party, who argued in a legal challenge that marijuana prohibition “contradicted the nation’s constitution.” “This wasn’t a fight for cannabis; this was a fight for freedom,” said the head of the Girchi party during a press briefing. Under Georgia’s new law, marijuana users can be prosecuted only if they “put a third person at risk” or light up in a school, on a public bus, or in front of children. However, cultivating and selling marijuana will still be illegal.
Again, that is not exactly marijuana freedom, but it is a decisive move toward that end.
The Canadian government
Although Canada is very much like the United States in many respects, there are some major differences in the national governments of the two countries.
The United States has a federal system of government wherein power is divided between the national and state governments, each of which has legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Americans have a Congress with a 435-member House of Representatives elected by people in state districts and a 100-member Senate elected by people statewide. Representatives serve two years and senators serve six. Legislation must be approved by a majority in both Houses of Congress and signed into law by the president, who is also elected.
According to Canada FAQ,
Canada is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary type of government wherein the Crown is the foundation of the judicial, legislative, and executive branches of government. Canada is also a federation in the sense that the provincial governments and the federal government have separate jurisdictions of political authority.
The role of the monarch is practical and legal but not political. Thus, political authority is shared by multiple institutions, which act under the authority of the sovereign. Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, is the sovereign and head of state of Canada. The Queen-in-Parliament, the Queen-in-Council, and the Queen-on-the-Bench are the legislature, the executive, and the courts, respectively.
The enactment of orders in council, letters patent, and laws requires royal assent, but the sovereign has a more limited role in political decision making and any of the areas of government. The Constitution defines the government as the sovereign acting on the advice of the Queen’s Privy Council of Canada. The latter consists of elder statesmen, Supreme Court chief justices, and former members of parliament. The Privy Council rarely meets in full and is accountable to the House of Commons. A group of Privy Council members holds seat in parliament and forms the Cabinet. The prime minister is appointed by the Governor General of Canada (on behalf of the sovereign).
The Prime Minister is the head of government, chairman of the Cabinet, and the primary minister of the Crown. The Prime Minister is also charged with advising the viceroy or the monarch on exercising the executive powers that are vested in them by the Canadian Constitution.
The Canadian legislature — the Parliament — consists of 338 members of the House of Commons, each representing an electoral district, who serve until the dissolution of Parliament, and 105 members of the Senate, who are appointed by the governor general on the advice of the prime minister, and may serve until age 75. Bills become law after they have been passed in identical form by the House of Commons and the Senate and formally, although ceremonially, approved by being granted royal assent by the governor general on behalf of the Crown. Most bills originate in the House of Commons by ministers of the Crown, and are not usually opposed by the Senate.
The marijuana bill
Medical marijuana was legalized in Canada in 2001 for use by terminally and chronically ill patients. Efforts at decriminalizing recreational marijuana failed in 2003 and 2004. The current Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, who assumed office on November 4, 2015, made the legalization of recreational marijuana a major campaign promise of the Liberal Party. “We will legalize, regulate, and restrict access to marijuana,” the Liberal Party proclaimed on its campaign website. “Canada’s current system of marijuana prohibition does not work. It does not prevent young people from using marijuana and too many Canadians end up with criminal records for possessing small amounts of the drug.” Even before he became prime minister, Trudeau publicly came out in support of legalizing marijuana, telling a crowd in 2013, “I’m actually not in favour of decriminalizing cannabis. I’m in favour of legalizing it. Tax it; regulate. It’s one of the only ways to keep it out of the hands of our kids because the current war on drugs, the current model is not working. We have to use evidence and science to make sure we’re moving forward on that.”
Bill C-45, “An Act respecting cannabis and to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the Criminal Code and other Acts,” was introduced in the House of Commons on April 13, 2017, and first passed on November 27, 2017, by a vote of 200-82. After consideration of amendments by the House and the Senate, the final version of the bill passed the House on June 18, 2018, by a vote of 205-82, and the Senate on June 20, 2018, by a vote of 52-29. Prime Minister Trudeau said on Senate passage, “It’s been too easy for our kids to get marijuana — and for criminals to reap the profits. Today, we change that.” Royal assent was given on June 21, 2018. Naturally, opposition came from the Canadian Conservative Party. MP Peter Kent of Ontario referred to the bill as a “wacky campaign promise” and a “misguided crusade.” MP Stephanie Kusie of Alberta opposed the bill because “smoking marijuana doubles the risk of developing schizophrenia” and “Canada would be in violation of three United Nations treaties” if it legalized marijuana.
The official summary of the bill states that the Cannabis Act’s objectives are:
- to prevent young persons from accessing cannabis,
- to protect public health and public safety by establishing strict product safety and product quality requirements,
- to deter criminal activity by imposing serious criminal penalties for those operating outside the legal framework, and
- to reduce the burden on the criminal justice system in relation to cannabis.
Among other things, the Cannabis Act
- establishes criminal prohibitions, such as the unlawful sale or distribution of cannabis, including its sale or distribution to young persons, and the unlawful possession, production, importation, or exportation of cannabis;
- prohibits any promotion, packaging, and labelling of cannabis that could be appealing to young persons or encourage its consumption;
- provides for inspection powers, the authority to impose administrative monetary penalties, and the ability to commence proceedings for certain offences by means of a ticket;
- permits the establishment of a cannabis tracking system for the purposes of the enforcement and administration of the Act;
- authorizes the Governor in Council to make regulations respecting such matters as quality, testing, composition, packaging, and labelling of cannabis.
More specifically, Canadians 18 and older will now be able to possess a maximum of 30 grams of legal marijuana in public, to cultivate four plants in their households, and to prepare products such as edibles for personal use. However, there will be strict rules concerning the purchase and use of marijuana. Consumers will have to purchase marijuana from retailers regulated by provinces, territories, or federally licensed producers. Marijuana cannot be sold in the same location as alcohol or tobacco. Provinces can increase the minimum age to purchase and use marijuana, but may not enact their own bans on marijuana. The federal government will oversee criminal sanctions for violating the law and the licensing of producers, while provincial governments will manage sales, distribution, and regulations. The Act largely follows recommendations made by a federal task force on cannabis legalization and regulation that issued its final report in November 2016.
It is important to note what this bill doesn’t do. It doesn’t allow Canadian individuals to grow or possess as much marijuana as they want to. It doesn’t allow Canadian businesses to produce, distribute, or sell marijuana without being inspected, licensed, taxed, or regulated. And, like the legislation in Uruguay and Georgia, the bill certainly doesn’t institute marijuana freedom. But it is a step in that direction.
The American situation
Since the state of California legalized marijuana for medical use in 1996, 29 other states and the District of Columbia have done likewise, the most recent state being Oklahoma. Recreational marijuana is legal in 9 states and the District of Columbia. The possession of small amounts of marijuana has been decriminalized in 21 states and the District of Columbia. Medical-marijuana initiatives are on the November ballot in Missouri and Utah. Recreational-marijuana initiatives are on the November ballot in Michigan and North Dakota.
Yet the federal government considers the growing, distributing, buying, selling, possessing, or smoking of marijuana to be a violation of federal law. Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801). As a Schedule I drug, marijuana is said to meet the following criteria:
- The drug has a high potential for abuse.
- The drug has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.
- There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug under medical supervision.
The Supreme Court has ruled that the federal government has the authority to prohibit marijuana possession and use for any and all purposes. The Trump Department of Justice is committed to the enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act in the fifty states and has rescinded the Obama-era policy of discouraging federal prosecutors from bringing charges of marijuana-related crimes in states where marijuana sales have been legalized. Federal banking regulations make it difficult for American cannabis-related firms to obtain financial services.
Under federal law, “possession of marijuana is punishable by up to one year in jail and a minimum fine of $1,000 for a first conviction. For a second conviction, the penalties increase to a 15-day mandatory minimum sentence with a maximum of two years in prison and a fine of up to $2,500. Subsequent convictions carry a 90-day mandatory minimum sentence and a maximum of up to three years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.”
The “distribution of a small amount of marijuana, for no remuneration, is treated as possession.” But “the manufacture or distribution of fewer than 50 plants or 50 kilograms of marijuana is punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.” You can get life in prison for manufacturing or distributing 1,000 plants or kilograms of marijuana and the death penalty for “manufacturing, importing or distributing a controlled substance if the act was committed as part of a continuing criminal enterprise.”
Not only does the U.S. government not want Americans to use marijuana, it doesn’t want Canadians using it either. According to Canada’s CTV News, “Despite legalization, Canadians who admit using cannabis could be banned permanently from entering the U.S.” A Canadian immigration lawyer told the news agency, “It’s basically black and white — if you admit to a U.S. border officer at a U.S. port of entry that you’ve smoked marijuana in the past, whether it’s in Canada or the U.S., you will be barred entry for life to the United States.” He said he believes that “U.S. border agents will begin asking the question more frequently once Canada’s new marijuana legislation is implemented.” However, although Canadians have the right not to answer the question, the questioned person may be denied entry to the United States for the day if he refuses.
The legalization of marijuana in Canada will definitely affect U.S. drug policy, since Canada and the United States cooperate extensively on cross-border drug “trafficking.” Although, with the exception of marijuana, the two countries have similar lists of illegal drugs, because one of Washington’s major concerns is that marijuana is coming into the country from Canada, the change in the law in Canada is certain to negatively affect the U.S. government’s war on drugs, since it will be easier for Canadian and American drug smugglers to obtain marijuana in Canada to bring across the border. Because Canada and the United States are culturally and economically similar countries, proponents of national marijuana legalization in the United States will be closely watching what happens in Canada in the aftermath of its marijuana-legalization experiment.
Clearly, the goal is marijuana freedom — in Uruguay, Georgia, Canada, America, and every other country: the freedom to buy, sell, grow, smoke, possess, and transport marijuana, and medicate with it in any quantity and for any reason without government licensing, regulation, restriction, monitoring, or control. Marijuana decriminalization, medical-marijuana legalization, recreational-marijuana legalization, taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol, and other hoops that governments make people jump through to get access to marijuana without fear of being arrested, fined, or imprisoned are a means to an end.
Why does all of this matter? After all, many people consider marijuana use to be immoral, sinful, dangerous, stupid, addictive, risky, unhealthy, harmful, destructive, ruinous, deadly, a gateway to other drugs, or medically ineffective. Marijuana may be all of these things (and, of course, it may not be any of them), but that is not the point. Alcohol is certainly many of them.
To the libertarian, using marijuana — for whatever reason — is a personal-freedom issue.
In a libertarian society, that is, in a free society, it is not the proper role of government to prohibit, regulate, restrict, or otherwise control what a man desires to eat, drink, smoke, inject, absorb, snort, sniff, inhale, swallow, or otherwise ingest into his mouth, nose, veins, or lungs. In a free society, it is not the proper role of government to legislate morality. In a free society, it is not the proper role of government to prohibit or restrict behavior that doesn’t violate the personal or property rights of others. In a free society, there would be no Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), no Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), no drug czar, no drug schedules, no Controlled Substances Act, and no war on drugs. In a free society, there would be no laws at any level of government for any reason regarding the buying, selling, growing, processing, transporting, importing, exporting, manufacturing, advertising, using, possessing, or trafficking of any drug for any reason. In a free society, there would be a free market in drugs without any government interference, regulation, taxing, or licensing. In a free society, individuals, not government bureaucrats, would decide what risks to take and what behaviors are in their own best interests. In a free society, everyone would be free to live his life in any manner he chooses as long as his activities are nonviolent, nondisorderly, nondisruptive, nonthreatening, and noncoercive.
At the end of each verse of the American National Anthem, reference is made to the star-spangled banner’s waving “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Yet, when it comes to marijuana, Americans — depending on the state they live in — have only some, little, or no freedom. It is Canada that now has more freedom when it comes to marijuana.
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all of us command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!
No one — American, Canadian, or anything else — should ever be arrested, fined, or imprisoned for possessing a plant his government doesn’t approve of.
This article was originally published in the November 2018 edition of Future of Freedom.