Legal cannabis in Canada: The Basics

It’s been almost two years since Canada became the second country in the world to legalize cannabis. So what led this first-world country to rescheduling a plant that had been illegal for nearly a century?

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Why legalize?

Justin Trudeau promised Canadians in 2015 during his campaign to become prime minister that if elected, he would legalize cannabis. At the time, Canada had the highest population of underage cannabis users, and many people were in prison or facing other restrictions such as probation for low-level pot offences like possession and public consumption. According to the government, most black market cannabis was being grown and distributed through organized crime. Thankfully, several decades of peaceful disobedience by cannabis-loving activists and medical patients who relied on the plant had finally proven to politicians that the prohibition of cannabis was simply a bad law, and that it no longer served Canadians.

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After being elected, Prime Minister Trudeau said Canada would move ahead with legalizing cannabis for two primary reasons: To keep cannabis out of the hands of young people, and to displace the black market by diverting profits from organized crime. A new set of legislation focusing on the recreational use of cannabis was created after several months of consultation with experts, stakeholders, and communities across the country, complimenting Canada’s existing medical cannabis laws. This new piece of legislation, the Cannabis Act, would also deschedule cannabis from Canada’s existing drug laws.

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But don’t be fooled: just because cannabis is technically now “legal” in Canada, it doesn’t mean there are no longer any restrictions associated with its use. In fact, under the new Cannabis Act, there are more potential charges, often with harsher penalties, than under previous legislation.

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What are the Rules?

  • The legal age for consumption and possession of cannabis in Canada is either 18 or 19, depending on which province or territory you’re located in. These age limits are in line with provincial drinking restrictions. For example, in British Columbia, the minimum age to purchase liquor and cannabis is 19, but in Alberta and Quebec, it is 18.
  • There are very strict penalties for sharing cannabis with a person under the legal age. If you get caught sharing a joint or some of your stash with a 17-year-old, you could face serious fines and a prison sentence of up to 14 years!
  • Adults are allowed to carry up to 30 grams of dried cannabis flower (or equivalent) in public. Get caught carrying more and police officers might be under the impression that you intend to sell your cannabis, which could also land you in hot water (and potentially, prison).
  • Cannabis must be purchased from a legal retailer. Each province is in control of distribution, and their models are all slightly different. Some, like British Columbia, offer a mixed model of private and public stores, as well as an online store. Others, like Saskatchewan and Manitoba, operate entirely private models.
    Cannabis can be “socially shared” among adults. This means you’re free to gift cannabis to friends and family, but you cannot charge them for it.
  • To differentiate “legal” cannabis products (grown and created by licensed producers and processors that have been approved by Health Canada) from those which are illegal, the government has implemented an excise stamp program, similar to the stamps which appear on packs of cigarettes.
  • Cannabis products cannot be taken across any federal borders, even if the place you’re travelling to (Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado, etc.) also has legal cannabis.
  • Just like drinking, there are rules against consuming cannabis and driving. Police officers in Canada are now equipped with a machine that can test the quantity of THC in a person’s saliva. If they believe a person has been driving while high, that person can be taken straight to the hospital to have their blood tested for a more accurate number. Penalties for driving while high are comparable to drunk-driving penalties, and include steep fines and potential jail time.
  • All cannabis packaging is required to be plain and must include Health Canada warning labels. Licensed producers and processors are not permitted to advertise their products in the same way a liquor company can, however advertisements are permitted in places where no youth are permitted (ie. in a bar or nightclub).
  • The rules laying out where cannabis can be consumed in public are determined by municipalities and provinces, and vary widely. If you’re not sure, look up smoking regulations in your area to find out.
  • When it comes to personal growing, Canadians are entitled to grow cannabis at home, but cannot have more than four plants per household. In British Columbia, these plants are not allowed to be visible from a public place. (This might make growing on your balcony a little challenging.)

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Which products are legal?

One year after dried cannabis, cannabis oils, and capsules were legalized in 2018, the federal government updated the Cannabis Act to include several additional classes of products, including edibles, extracts, and topicals. Rules apply to these products and stipulate how much THC they can contain.

  • Edible cannabis products like cookies and chocolates cannot exceed 10 milligrams of THC per package. (If you have a high tolerance, you might find yourself spending more money on “legal” edibles because of this limit.)
  • Cannabis extracts like budder, shatter, and wax cannot contain more than 1000 milligrams of THC per package.
  • Cannabis oils and capsules meant for ingesting cannot exceed more than 1000 milligrams of THC per package, or 10 milligrams per unit (capsule).
  • Topical products such as creams and salves cannot contain more than 1000 milligrams of THC per package.

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Canada has successfully implemented a legal cannabis program and almost two years in, it seems to be going well. Granted, a new industry isn’t exactly predictable, and many of the big companies that started out strong have faltered because of issues like product quality and price. As the big fish start leaving the pond, we’re seeing more room for smaller companies that are committed to growing high-quality cannabis that Canadian cannabis connoisseurs want. Finally, craft cannabis growers have access to the legal market, and Canadians have access to a much wider variety of products. The trend of legalization and decriminalization is catching on around the globe, and only time will tell if Canada can maintain its position as one of the world’s greatest destinations for cannabis.

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