Canada became the first major industrialized country to fully decriminalize cannabis for recreational use on Wednesday, October 17, fulfilling a 2015 election pledge from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a process that has proved massively complex.
As first reported in the Washington Post, concerns about the process abound. Already there are worries about a shortage of legal cannabis in the early months of legalization and a dearth of retail outlets in rural areas.
That second concern could lead to a possible boom in the illicit marijuana trade the new law is designed to thwart. And if the current U.S. policy holds, Canadians crossing into the United States might be barred entry if they admit to using cannabis.
The new legislation passed by Canada's Parliament in June is a far broader legalization process than what has taken place in the United States. starting Wednesday it will no longer be illegal for adults to purchase, possess or grow recreational cannabis.
Provincial Cannabis Regulations
Although the federal government is responsible for licensing commercial cannabis growers and authorizing their products; Canada's 13 provinces and territories are tasked with regulating the distribution and sale of cannabis, and they are adopting differing approaches.
In Ontario and the Western provinces, the sale of cannabis will be left largely to licensed privately operated retail outlets, but in Quebec and most eastern Canadian provinces, marijuana will only be sold in state-run stores, similar to how alcohol is sold.
In most of the country, the legal age will be 18 or 19, the same as for alcohol, but Quebec has promised to boost the cannabis consumption age to 21.
The only way to buy legal pot as of Wednesday in Ontario will be by mail order after recently elected premier Doug Ford reversed plans to sell cannabis through government-owned stores.
Not Everything Legal
Federal law also will allow adults to grow four plants apiece for personal consumption, extending a rule for legal users of medical marijuana, but Quebec and Manitoba intend to ban personal growing outright.
And foods containing cannabis, such as cookies and candies, will remain illegal for the next year until the Canadian government completes its regulatory regime for edibles.
Short on the Green
Several Canadian provinces have already complained about cannabis producers shipping less product than anticipated, which they fear, could lead to product shortages.
Anindya Sen, an economics professor at the University of Waterloo says the anticipated shortage of cannabis through formal retail outlets could be a major boost for black-market providers. He notes that many of these suppliers already use websites, apps and even home delivery for their offerings.
"My fear is that in provinces like British Columbia or Ontario where we have no retail access, it will be easy to" find illicit suppliers online, he said in an interview. "You put in your postal code and up pops a legal supplier or a guy in a truck."
Despite the hiccups, Sen said he believes Canada has an opportunity to take a leading role in an emerging industry.
"A lot of European countries will be looking at what is happening here," he said. "If Canada gets it right, it could be a world leader" in creating systems to produce and process commercial amounts of cannabis.
Crossing on Guard
For Canadians who use cannabis, crossing the border into the United States remains a risk even after the law changed. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, "Anybody who admits to having violated the law relating to a controlled substance is inadmissible to the U.S."
Len Saunders, an immigration lawyer in Blaine, Washington, who specializes in cross-border issues, thinks Canadians crossing the border are being placed in a difficult position.
If they admit to using cannabis when asked by a U.S. border official, they may be barred entry. If they deny having smoked marijuana and are found out to have lied, they are in even more serious trouble.
Saunders recommends clients who have smoked; not to answer a cannabis question from a border officer, which is an individual's right. But the Canadian should not attempt to cross the border that day.
But Customs and Border Protection last week agreed to relax its position related to Canadians working in the cannabis production business.
Previously, they were to be barred entry. Now, they can enter the United States if they are traveling for reasons "unrelated to the marijuana industry."
U.S. citizens have no such risks because no U.S. official can legally bar a citizen from entering the country.