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5 Things Canada Learned From America's Legal States

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to legalize cannabis, he said he would study the best practices in states like Colorado to figure out how to regulate and tax cannabis in Canada.

We now have an idea of what legalization in Canada might look like, based on a report released in November by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse - an organization appointed by parliament in 1988 as the "national steward of Canada's drug strategy."

Earlier this year, the CCSA sent representatives to meet with legislators, law enforces, regulators, and other stakeholders in Washington state and Colorado. They discussed a variety of issues involving the medical, social and economic impact of legalization.

Here are some key points we pulled from their report:

1. Save on law enforcement by investing in education

Legalization doesn't mean "anything goes." But residents in legal states often forget that, which means police have to divert their attention and resources to punishing people for infractions such as purchase limits, age requirements and bans on smoking cannabis in public.

Meanwhile, health officials in both states expressed concerns that the public wasn't properly informed about the dangers of mixing cannabis with alcohol and over-consuming edibles.

Both Colorado and Washington have earmarked a portion of annual cannabis tax revenues for initiatives to educate the public on the laws as well as health concerns and responsible consumption.

The problem is, the funds for that program weren't available until after the marijuana market opened, which means police and health officials had to play catch up. Stakeholders recommend investing in education programs ahead of legalization so that the public knows what's safe and what's legal ahead of time.

2. Police need to guard against 'marijuana runners' to the U.S.

Some people break cannabis laws unknowingly. But others in legal states have taken advantage of lax law enforcement. Simply put, when cannabis became legal, many officers stopped worrying about making busts. As a result, there was an increase in Colorado's black market - but not in the state itself. Residents abused the legalization to produce and export cannabis to states where it remains illegal.

That means Canadian cops will have to be vigilant about preventing legal cannabis in provinces like Ontario from being sold in states like Michigan and New York, where prohibition is still the law. Otherwise, "marijuana runners" might become the rum runners of the 21st century.

3. Prepare for a spike in hospitalizations and DUIs

Don't be alarmed if the number of driving infractions and hospitalizations for cannabis increase shortly after legalization. Washington state noted a rise in the number of marijuana DUIs, which some see as a negative side effect of legalization. But other stakeholders think the increase results from law enforcers becoming more aware of and better able to detect inebriated drivers.

That means the number of inebriated drivers hasn't necessarily spiked. Instead, the police have become better at pulling them off the road.

Similarly, Colorado noted that poison control and hospitals received a lot more traffic for cannabis-related incidents. But that increase may be a result of patients being more open to admitting their conditions are cannabis-related now that marijuana is legal. In the past, they probably lied about their conditions so that they didn't end up with a hospital bill and a criminal record.

4. Cap the THC content

The DEA's current drug scheduling prevents researchers from studying the longterm effects of cannabis. That makes stakeholders in Washington and Colorado particularly nervous about products with high THC content such as extracts and oils. They recommend putting caps on THC until researchers can study its effects and risks thoroughly. That leads to their next bit of advice...

5. Start strict, then relax regulations over time

Don't be surprised if Canada's cannabis regulations seem a bit harsh at first. Stakeholders recommended starting with a restrictive framework and then loosening the rules according to scientific research and market analysis.

That means edibles might come in small packages, and you might not be allowed to carry much cannabis around at first. But that doesn't mean it'll always be that way. The stakeholders simply urge Canada to remember that it's harder to increase restrictions than to decrease them over time.

Interested in more? You can read the whole report here.


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