Hard News by Russell Brown


Let Canada do our cannabis homework

The news that Canada's Cannabis Act, which legalises and regulates the sale of cannabis, and its use and possession by adults, had passed its final legislative hurdle, was somewhat overwhelmed by the day-to-day madness of global news in 2018. But you will hear a lot more about it as New Zealand edges towards its promised cannabis referendum.

It was evident as soon as the Trudeau government won election with legalisation on its manifesto that the experience there might prove to be a vital case study for other liberal democracies. And that it is even more true now. Canada has done a lot of the thinking for the rest of us.

I have an impending Matters of Substance feature on the cannabis referendum promised in Labour's support agreement with the Green Party. It wasn't something any of the governing parties campaigned on, but because New Zealand First has long (ostensibly anyway) favoured a referendum on the issue, it happened to be the point where all three could agree.

So the government is coming to this historic vote from a standing start. But this much we know: the referendum will be held in either 2019 (possibly in conjunction with local body elections and/or a voluntary euthanasia referendum) or 2020 (at the same time as the general election). The minister responsible is Andrew Little. Andrew Little told me that it was unlikely that there would be a fully worked-up law for the people to vote on, and that his sense is that the referendum will not be binding.

The first part there is problematic: "legalising cannabis" is an almost meaningless proposition. It might involve anything from removing penalties for use and possession (yes, I know, that's decriminalisation) to weed supermarkets on the high street. People need to know what they're voting for. That's why the full text of California's successful Proposition 64 in 2016 ran to more than 100,000 words of legal and technical definitions. Almost no voters actually read it, but they wanted it to be there. New Zealand voters will feel the same.

So how much of our homework has Canada done for us? Parts of its law do not apply to us: principally, the decision to devolve some of the regulation to its provinces. But even that offers us options to look at. In Alberta, about 200 regulated private retailers will be allowed to sell cannabis – while Ontario will only allow 40 state-run weed stores. (I'm told by an Ontario friend that the provincial government's decision is not popular with voters, and the rules there might loosen with the next election.)

This Guardian explainer usefully rattles through other key issues: product labelling, public possession limits, a new, stricter drug-driving law (it's still an incredibly fraught area and will be until there's an efficient, reliable impairment test), limits for home-growing (four plants up to a metre high, except in Quebec or Manitoba, where it will remain illegal), edibles (can't be sold until the government works out some specific regulation some time next year) and the rights of landlords and employers to restrict consumption.

The provisions come come from A Framework for the Legalisation and Regulation of Cannabis in Canada, which is the final report of the taskforce appointed by the goverment to travel around the country and consult. There are many other recommendations in the report, including strong restrictions on advertising and higher taxes on higher-THC products.

It also proposed an age for legal adult use: 18.

The choice of 18 as a threshold has been controversial in Canada. We know that while heavy use is less risky at age 18 than it is at age 15, risk is lower still at 25, when brain development has stabilised and neuroplasticity is much less of an issue. In choosing the lower age, the task force concluded that:

... persons under the age of 25 represent the segment of the population most likely to consume cannabis and to be charged with a cannabis possession offence, and in view of the Government's intention to move away from a system that criminalizes the use of cannabis, it is important in setting a minimum age that we do not disadvantage this population.

Anne McLellan, the former Canadian deputy Prime Minister who led the task force defended the choice of 18 in similar terms when she visited New Zealand last year: yes, you could minimise risk by opting for 25, but that would marginalise the very group of users you’re trying to engage and educate. She made the point that Canada was reforming precisely because the rate of youth use had remained worryingly and persistently high under prohibition.

It's worth noting that New Zealand doesn't currently have a minimum age for cannabis use. It also doesn't have any official guidelines for lowering the risk of cannabis use. Canada does, having adopted this 2017 expert literature literature review. It offers 10 key points:

For most recommendations, there was at least “substantial” (i.e., good-quality) evidence. We developed 10 major recommendations for lower-risk use: (1) the most effective way to avoid cannabis use–related health risks is abstinence, (2) avoid early age initiation of cannabis use (i.e., definitively before the age of 16 years), (3) choose low-potency tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or balanced THC-to-cannabidiol (CBD)–ratio cannabis products, (4) abstain from using synthetic cannabinoids, (5) avoid combusted cannabis inhalation and give preference to nonsmoking use methods, (6) avoid deep or other risky inhalation practices, (7) avoid high-frequency (e.g., daily or near-daily) cannabis use, (8) abstain from cannabis-impaired driving, (9) populations at higher risk for cannabis use–related health problems should avoid use altogether, and (10) avoid combining previously mentioned risk behaviors (e.g., early initiation and high-frequency use).

Some of these are difficult or impossible to apply in a prohibitive environment.

Canada has taken another important step: making clear that a past cannabis conviction will not be a barrier to joining the new, legal and regulated cannabis industry. I think this will be important to Māori communities who have suffered grossly disproportionate criminalisation for decades.

Canada has yet to decide whether it will follow California in expunging historic convictions for offences which no longer apply. Andrew Little was a little startled when I put it to him that it could be part of the package here, but our prosecution of cannabis laws has been as racially inequitable as California's has. This is a chance to redress enduring historic wrongs. It is also wholly in line with Little's own ideas about criminal justice reform.

So anyway, there is much to discuss and not much time to discuss it in – a public engagement programme can't even roll out until it receives funding in next year's Budget. And give that time is tight, we should be watching our Commonwealth cousins closely – and let Canada do our cannabis homework.

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