Canadian Cannabis Regulation

 Photo: Douglas Sprott.

Photo: Douglas Sprott.

In early March I participated in a fascinating symposium hosted by the McGeorge School of Law entitled Regulating Marijuana at Home and Abroad.  Perhaps because the marijuana industry is evolving so rapidly, every participant (and many of the attendees) seemed to have some new insight that no one else had picked up on yet.  I was given the opportunity to speak about the differences between US and Canadian marijuana agriculture regulations, highlighting some recent trends among US states on the one hand, and the Canadian federal government on the other hand.  

Canada's marijuana industry is at an inflection point this year, as Parliament is expected to consider and pass legislation that would legalize recreational marijuana use on the national level. Existing national regulations have proceeded in piece-meal fashion with mixed results.  This could be due to the fact that Canada's Parliament was forced to pass medical marijuana legislation by a series of court decisions that found it to be an unconstitutional violation of individual liberty and public health to maintain a federal marijuana prohibition.  I wrote an article comparing Canadian and US approaches to marijuana agriculture regulation that is forthcoming in the McGeorge Law Review (access it here). The introduction to the article is below: 

Federal marijuana policy in the United States and Canada has, in recent decades, been fixated on prohibition. That may be about to change.  In 2017, Canada is expected to become the first ‘Group of Seven’ nation to propose legislation that would legalize and regulate marijuana for recreational use.  According to the Canadian government’s party platform, “marijuana prohibition does not work.”  In a change of direction from decades of prohibition, the government is now calling for Parliament to “legalize, regulate, and restrict access” to marijuana.  Importantly, policymakers and regulators are in the process of developing a federal framework for marijuana regulation that would address agricultural considerations, including environmental impacts and protections for small-scale farmers.

The mood of the United States federal government is a marked contrast.  Marijuana has been a federally criminalized substance since passage of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970.  Following the 2016 presidential elections, there is uncertainty regarding President Donald Trump’s stance toward marijuana legalization and regulation on the state level. However, early indications suggest his administration is not interested in a federal regulatory framework.  Although the Republican Party in control of the federal government is generally supportive of federalism principles and state autonomy, there is fear that the federal government will interfere with state marijuana legalization and regulation efforts.  Absent a regulatory framework that goes beyond prohibition, there is little hope for federal involvement in agricultural or environmental issues facing the marijuana industry.

In addition to this contrast on the federal level, the United States and Canada have divergent experiences when it comes to subnational marijuana legalization and regulation.  In the United States, marijuana legalization has gained momentum and become commonplace on the state level.  California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana use in 1996.  Colorado and Washington then became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana use in 2012.  At the time of writing, twenty-eight states had legalized medical marijuana, while eight states (plus the District of Columbia) had legalized recreational marijuana.  Only five states have maintained a strict prohibition policy on marijuana cultivation, distribution, sale, or consumption.  These states represent less than five percent of the U.S. population.  Despite the federal prohibition, there are now a multitude of state regulatory frameworks in place, with a variety of statutory goals and approaches to compare. 

Canada has not experienced the same subnationally-driven path toward legalization.  Instead, the erosion of prohibition has been driven largely by the courts.  Regina v. Parker, 49 O.R. (3rd) 481 [2000], set the stage for legalization by declaring the federal government’s marijuana prohibition unconstitutional absent an exemption for medical necessity.  As the Court stated, “the marijuana laws forced the accused to choose between commission of a crime to obtain effective medical treatment and inadequate treatment,” a deprivation of liberty, security, and fundamental justice.  Invalidating the marijuana prohibition forced the Canadian Parliament to develop at least a basic framework for medical marijuana use.  Although the development of subsequent regulatory frameworks has been inconsistent, Canada’s experience with marijuana regulation on the federal level can serve as a meaningful starting point with which to pursue recreational legalization and regulation. 

A more developed exploration of U.S. and Canadian experiences with marijuana legalization and regulation is provided in the next section. However, this essay’s primary focus is on the contrasting experiences of these two countries with respect to marijuana agriculture.  The agricultural component of the marijuana industry is, after all, where the chain of supply begins.  And yet, the need for thoughtful and realistic agricultural regulations often takes a back seat to more visible concerns, such as distribution, marketing, sale, and consumption.  The lack of attention paid to marijuana cultivation is a disservice to farmers, regulators, and consumers.  Farmers often confront ambiguous or unresponsive legal requirements, and are forced to choose between staying in the shadows of the illicit market or attempting to comply with a confusing web of unrealistic regulations.  Policymakers and administrative agencies face their own challenge, tasked with creating an ambitious regulatory framework from scratch.  These regulators often do not have a history with the marijuana industry, or analogous regulations to fall back on.  Consumers and the public at large, finally, benefit from having a diversity of market options, as well as marijuana that is sustainably cultivated. 

The early record of marijuana agriculture regulation in the U.S. and Canada is mixed.  Some U.S. states, such as California, acknowledge the agricultural component of the marijuana industry and are taking steps to develop a regulatory framework that supports farming communities and the environment.  Other states, such as New York and Florida, aim to control cultivation by severely limiting the number of producers.  In any case, most states have not developed a robust regulatory scheme for marijuana that comprehensively addresses agricultural issues.

Canada’s approach to marijuana agriculture regulation has been simultaneously restrictive and permissive under the current medically-focused framework.  On the one hand, Health Canada (authorized to regulate cultivation) has only issued thirty-seven cultivation licenses nation-wide, despite receiving 1,561 applications.  Eleven Canadian provinces have two cultivators or less.  In addition, marijuana can only be grown indoors, an energy-intensive agricultural method that artificially reproduces the light, soil, and water conditions found on outdoor farms.  On the other hand, licensed cultivators are allowed to develop, grow, and sell whatever strain(s) of marijuana they see fit, and are free to set their own prices. 

In anticipation of legislation that would legalize and regulate recreational marijuana in Canada, the federal government formed a task force to make recommendations on marijuana policy.  The task force report recommended significant changes to the current approach to agricultural regulation.  Notably, the report recommended that: 1) the federal government take the lead on regulating agriculture; 2) licensing schemes be adapted to promote a diversity of cultivators, including small-scale farmers; and 3) environmental protection be promoted through regulations that include licensing and supporting outdoor farmers.  If implemented, the recommendations would represent a markedly more diverse and inclusive approach to marijuana agriculture regulation.

This essay proceeds accordingly.  In Part II, a brief history of marijuana prohibition, legalization, and regulation in the U.S. and Canada is provided and contrasted.  Part III paints a picture of marijuana agriculture regulation in the U.S. by exploring approaches in three states (California, Colorado, and Washington) where regulatory frameworks for cultivation are relatively developed.  Part IV tells the Canadian story (where agricultural production is, for now, scarcely permitted), while looking ahead to impending regulations for recreational marijuana.  Part V concludes by drawing out common regulatory successes and failures, with an eye toward lessons learned that can inform the future development of marijuana agriculture regulations in the United States and Canada.