When it comes to cannabis – and many other things, for that matter – Canada has long been regarded as one of the most progressive nations in the world. Although the North American country was pipped to the post at becoming the first in the world to legalise recreational cannabis (that was Uruguay in 2013), it did come pretty close. In 2018, the nation introduced its federal legislation that legalised recreational cannabis across all of its ten provinces. But coming up to four years after the move, what is Canada’s legacy? 

An Early Adopter of Access to Medical Cannabis 

Prior to the progressive move to introduce legal access to recreational cannabis products, Canada was also a frontrunner on the global stage for its early regulation of medical cannabis. Access to cannabis for medicinal purposes was facilitated by Health Canada in 2001 – 17 years before it was legalised in the UK. Since then, patients have been able to access medical cannabis for a wide range of conditions, including for the treatment of symptoms associated with multiple sclerosis, cancer, HIV Aids, epilepsy, and arthritis.  

The introduction of Canada’s Cannabis Act in October 2018 made some changes to the country’s long-standing medical cannabis system. In the government’s own words: “some changes have been made to improve patient access.” These changes include patients now being able to buy cannabis products for medicinal purposes from provincially or territorially authorised retailers (in addition to federally licensed sellers). Patients are now also able to benefit from a broader range of cannabis-based products and  
removal of the 30-day limitation period for buying cannabis from a federally licensed seller. 

Furthermore, patients that have been authorised by their healthcare provider are able to cultivate their own limited supply of cannabis. The domestic cultivation of cannabis for medicinal purposes was permitted prior to the introduction of the Cannabis Act; however, the legislation also made it legal for recreational users to cultivate limited amounts of the crop.  

Public Opinion 

The progressive nature of Canada’s approach to cannabis could be seen to be largely influenced by public opinion. The population in Canada has had a long-standing tradition of tolerance and liberality when it comes to the ancient crop. As early as 1997, a majority of Canadians reportedly believed that smoking cannabis should not be a criminal offence. While the vote was extremely close, these figures are quite remarkable – especially when we consider that actual legalisation wasn’t to be introduced for over 20 years.  

This trend towards liberality was consistent across the next two decades and, by 2017, almost 70% of Canadians were in favour of cannabis legalisation.  

The Framework of Canada’s Adult-Use Market 

The Canadian government states that its plan to legalise cannabis was based on a number of principal objectives. According to the government’s Discussion Paper on the subject, these objectives were established to

  • Protect young Canadians by keeping cannabis out of the hands of children and youth; 
  • Keep profits out of the hands of criminals, particularly organized crime; 
  • Reduce the burdens on police and the justice system associated with simple possession of cannabis offences; 
  • Prevent Canadians from entering the criminal justice system and receiving criminal records for simple cannabis possession offences; 
  • Protect public health and safety by strengthening, where appropriate, laws and enforcement measures that deter and punish more serious cannabis offences, particularly selling and distributing to children and youth, selling outside of the regulatory framework, and operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of cannabis. 

To name a few. Other principal objectives are to promote public education through the use of public health campaigns, provide access to high-quality cannabis for research purposes, and to enable ongoing data collection in order to monitor the effects of the new framework. 

To achieve these goals, the government has acknowledged that the new legal market must be able to compete with the illicit black market. This involves balancing easy access to safe, quality products with price, product variety, and consumer education on the harms of consumption. So, four years after the introduction of legalisation, how has Canada’s legal cannabis market fared in this challenge?  

Competing with the Black Market 

Over the last four years, there have been various reports that Canada’s legal market was struggling to compete with the Black Market; however, the most recent figures suggest that this has begun to change. According to Statistics Canada, by the fourth quarter of 2020, the legal market had overtaken the black market in cannabis sales.  

It is likely that this pick-up in the legal cannabis market was linked to the introduction of the so-called ‘Cannabis 2.0’ legislation. Heralded as the second phase of cannabis legalisation in Canada, Cannabis 2.0 meant that consumers were able to purchase cannabis edibles, extracts, and topicals (among other products) on the legal market for the first time. Coupled with the introduction of delivery services during the Coronavirus lockdowns and the ever-narrowing price gap when compared to illicit products, it appears that Canadian consumers are finally embracing the legal market. 

Canadian Cannabis on the Global Stage 

But the legalisation of cannabis doesn’t just allow governments to raise valuable revenue in their own country. Increasingly, the export of cannabis is providing a desirable revenue stream that more governments are looking to take advantage. It would be fair to assume that being a frontrunner in the race to cannabis legalisation would have allowed Canada to benefit from the demand for cannabis-based products, but has this been the case? 

Well, as we touched on in our article, ‘What is GMP and What Does it Mean for the Cannabis Industry?’, the export of cannabis products isn’t as simple as many might hope. GMP standards are applied to a variety of products, including cosmetics, foods, and pharmaceutical products – including medical cannabis. Health Canada is the federal government body that ensures cannabis products meet the necessary standards for both domestic and international distribution. As such, “the import and export of cannabis may only be authorised for medical and scientific purposes and within the parameters set by the international drug conventions.” 

Investment Opportunities 

However, the export of cannabis-based products is not the only opportunity presented by the legalisation of cannabis. With advanced frameworks in place – at least in comparison to other parts of the world – Canada has seen a rise in investment companies dedicated specifically to the growth of the cannabis industry.  

Many of these companies have invested in smaller businesses, cultivators and manufacturers around the globe, simultaneously contributing to the development of the global cannabis industry and profiting from this growth. However, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for these companies. Failed investments led to the loss of millions of dollars for a number of Canadian cannabis firms – including Tilray, Canopy Growth, and Aurora – over the last few years. 

Looking to the Future 

Despite a number of controversies and hiccoughs along the way, it appears that Canada is generally making good on – or at least working towards doing so – its principal aims for the legalisation of cannabis. Figures suggest that the country’s illicit cannabis market is continuing to shrink as the legal market grows. What’s more, patients and recreational consumers now have access to a wider number of products – all of which have been tested for safety and compliance.  

Canada’s long road to success may soon prove to be an inspiration for other legal markets popping up around the world. A delegate from Germany – where a legal market is scheduled to be introduced in the next few years – is visiting Canada, as well as California, USA, to better understand how these jurisdictions have strived to make legal access to cannabis work. One thing is clear: Canada’s early adoption of cannabis reforms has put the country on the front foot as the global industry continues to develop.