Recreational Cannabis: A Fringe Issue On the Cusp Of Legalization

The Canadian federal election campaign featured a relentless and comprehensive focus on concerns of the middle class. So it's no wonder the debate around legalizing cannabis didn't get much attention. Of course, that doesn't matter much now that the pro-legalization party has won a majority government.

For many years the burden of cannabis prohibition – a criminal record for possession or use – has fallen disproportionately on youth from Canada's minority and inner-city populations. For the vast majority of white working- or middle-class Canadians cannabis is already de facto, if not de jure, legal.

There are at least two reasons for this.

Since at least the early years of the Jean Chrétien Liberal regime, cannabis has occupied a grey zone between Health Canada and the criminal justice system. Policy makers understand that criminalization for cannabis is excessive, wasteful of justice-system resources and more harmful than use of the substance itself. Still, it is Schedule II of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and therefore prohibited under law.

So enforcement persisted and disproportionate resources flowed to law enforcement. At the same time, policy makers haphazardly tried to manage cannabis as a public health issue, particularly after a succession of court rulings – including a Supreme Court decision – compelled the federal government to create a mechanism by which individuals could gain legal access to cannabis for therapeutic purposes.

Police unfairly punish minorities, low-income youth

The second reason that cannabis seemed decriminalized or even legal is that so few persons from Canada's mainstream communities experienced the harmful consequences of criminalization. Police departments enforce selectively; they confiscate more than they prosecute.

One can only imagine the pressure to reform if middle-class kids had been criminalized as often as kids from reservations or inner city housing projects. So cannabis was not top-of-mind because prohibition never penalized the establishment with the same alacrity as it did the underclass.

Incoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wisely got in front of the issue, which is a good thing for legalization advocates given the election result. A full year before the election Trudeau distinguished between legalization and decriminalization and came down on the side of legalization arguing that legalization and regulation offered the best prospect of creating barriers to youth. On this point he had the evidence on his side and the issue never attained the political valence that it otherwise might have.

By contrast, the Harper Conservatives fumbled the issue by trying to recruit the Canadian Medical Association into a public miseducation campaign which, to their credit, the CMA passed on.

Toward the end of the campaign, the Prime Minister – in a spasm of pants-on-fire hyperbole – claimed that cannabis was " infinitely worse" than tobacco. It was not as if the PM had credibility to lose on cannabis or criminal justice policy: his whole approach has been, since his first minority mandate, to say what was convenient howsoever fact free or sanitized of evidence.

Late stage events with the drug-abusing former mayor of Toronto made Harper a laughing stock, further undermining his credibility.

Tom Mulcair's New Democratic Party tried to strike a middle ground and only very late came to endorse legalization. But their decline in the polls left them on the sidelines. The battle came down to "more of the same" vs. "time for a change."

And time for a change indeed. Even though cannabis remained a fringe issue in the campaign, a Liberal majority government is now poised to legalize it countrywide.

Craig Jones is the executive director of NORML Canada: The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in Canada. E-mail:


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