Canada’s landmark decision to introduce a strictly regulated legal cannabis market is a public health win, and something the New Zealand government should look to emulate.
“Canada’s Parliament has rightly accepted that legalising cannabis is the best way to protect public health and safety,” says Ross Bell, NZ Drug Foundation Executive Director.
“It may seem counter-intuitive to many, but this bold move to legalise cannabis use and sales in Canada is a better way to pursue public health goals than leaving it to the black market.”
New Zealand can learn a lot from Canada’s legalisation process. Each of the 13 provinces and territories will choose how to implement the federal law, which means retail licensing, age restrictions and store locations will vary from state to state.
The law was designed within a public health framework, to reduce the likelihood of negative health outcomes and the downstream effects of criminalisation.
“When you hand out a conviction for a cannabis use offence, it can set off a downward spiral of events. Treating drug use as a health issue not a criminal one means better results for individuals and society as a whole,” Mr Bell says.
“The sky hasn’t fallen since cannabis was legalised in several neighbouring US states. And since Canada is taking a more cautious approach to legalisation than they have in the States, we should expect similar or better outcomes.”
The public health principles are borne out in advertising restrictions, regulations around packaging, taxation to control retail prices, and more funding for treatment and education. The federal government has already invested heavily in education and prevention activities, with $47 million allocated in 2017 and $62.5 million in the last budget.
A comprehensive research programme is already underway to track how legalisation will affect consumption, pricing and public health. Before the legislation was introduced, the Trudeau-led government had already indicated it would be open to tweaking the law to get the best possible health outcomes.
“The Canadian government has consistently said regulation is the best way to protect young people,” Mr Bell says. “Young Canadians will find it harder to access cannabis once a legal framework is in place. The black market will take a big hit and stores will observe strict age limits.
“As New Zealand considers the upcoming cannabis referendum, we will have the chance to learn from those that have gone before us. Our punitive drug law clearly isn’t working, we urgently need a different approach. Let’s be willing to borrow the best from our Canadian Commonwealth cousins.”
The purpose of Bill C-45 to legalise cannabis is as follows (via Canadian parliament website):
The objectives of the Act are to prevent young persons from accessing cannabis, to protect public health and public safety by establishing strict product safety and product quality requirements and to deter criminal activity by imposing serious criminal penalties for those operating outside the legal framework. The Act is also intended to reduce the burden on the criminal justice system in relation to cannabis.
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95% of respondents reported positive effects, in a study that looked at both prescription and black market cannabis use.