Marijuana Is Now Legal In Canada — Here’s Why The U.S. Will Not Be Far Behind

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Photo Credit: Donald Weber

This fall, Canada is set to become the 2nd nation in the world to allow legal consumption of recreational marijuana. The Cannabis Act, passed by the Canadian Senate on June 21, controls and regulates the growth, distribution and sale of recreational marijuana in Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expects everything to be in place for consumption to begin on October 17. Canada is the first G-7 country to take this step and the second overall after Uruguay. With voters in many developed countries advocating for decriminalization and legalization of cannabis, this appears to be a trend. The U.S. would become the largest potential market for legal cannabis. So, it makes sense to ask: “Will it actually happen here?”

Did You Know?

First, let’s be clear about one thing, cannabis is illegal in the U.S. It is illegal in California, Colorado, Washington and every other state under federal law. However, there are practical, legal and resource factors that limit the federal government’s ability to enforce this prohibition. Drug enforcement is difficult without local state support. So, when a state like California legalizes recreational cannabis, the local law enforcement stops enforcing the prohibition. Generally, the Feds go along with the local approach.

Cannabis is still illegal, but no one is enforcing the federal law prohibiting recreational consumption. Local businesses operate to bring cannabis to market, but these businesses have significant limitations on access to financial services such as opening bank accounts, getting loans or issuing stock.  These are the services cannabis businesses need to grow and they cannot readily access them due to the federal prohibition on marijuana.

However, there is growing pressure to change the federal law and allow states to make the decision for themselves while paving the way for businesses to grow and generate taxes. Similar to Canada, support for legalization has grown dramatically over the past 20 years. There are many factors influencing this political change, but possibly the most important has been the rise of medical marijuana and its ability to affect voter perceptions of the drug.

Medical Marijuana Affects Perception

Since California approved medical marijuana in 1996, national support for medicinal use has grown substantially. Support is almost universal at 94% among those polled in a Quinnipiac University poll from April 2017. Its support has grown because people have seen some benefits for health purposes, either first hand, through friends or anecdotally. Consumers of medical marijuana are not the counter-culture hippies demonized by opponents in the past. These cannabis users are children with epilepsy, cancer patients, and veterans dealing with PTSD. Few opponents of marijuana would want to limit treatment options for these patients if the drug can help.

The opposition to medical marijuana is generally rooted in two main ideas.

First, that there is limited research showing the benefit of cannabis as a treatment. While this is true, more data is coming every day as patients use cannabis for medical reasons. Research showing benefits for patients dealing with opioid addition or limiting pain from migraine headaches is becoming persuasive enough to merit further investigation. To date, 29 states have approved medical cannabis. These states provide more data every year showing real benefits for patients.

Second, anti-drug abuse organizations have raised concerns that medical use will lower the perception of risk of the drug. To be perfectly honest, that appears to be true, and we can see it in the favorable viewpoints of voters.

Voter Perception of Marijuana

For many voters, medical marijuana changed the perception of cannabis from an abused gateway drug to something that could really help people with debilitating conditions. Medical marijuana normalized the use of recreational marijuana. When medical marijuana was approved for the first time in 1996, the idea of legalizing recreational marijuana seemed impossible. According to a Gallup poll conducted at the time, only 25% of Americans thought cannabis should be legal, about the same percentage of Americans that supported legalization in the previous 20 years, going back to 1977. Since 1996, support has grown steadily and as of October 2017, it stood at 64% overall. Both sides of the political spectrum hold this view with 72% Democrats, 67% Independents and 51% Republicans in favor of legalization. Broad support can work wonders in terms of government decisions.

Changing Legislatures

Increasing support for a more normalized approach to marijuana has led to decriminalization in many states. More importantly, politicians respond to these polls. For years, legalization was achievable only through public referendums to change the law. However, we have reached the point where public support is strong enough that Vermont state legislators passed a bill and the governor supported it in January 2018.

Photo Credit: DeAgostini

The result is a feedback loop of normalization for cannabis. Medical marijuana normalizes cannabis for voters allowing a public conversation of the risks and greater support emerging. Without the threat of being voted out of office, state governments are more willing to have laws that allow recreational use to generate taxes. This further normalizes marijuana for voters, and on and on we go. There are other factors involving social, criminal and health concerns, but the interplay between voter perceptions and the state and federal governments is apparent. Voter support has created an impact at the national level. The U.S. Congress has shown bipartisan support for measures protecting medical marijuana and recreational marijuana protections are probably not that far behind.

Medical marijuana has changed the way American voters perceive marijuana as a drug and for opponents, there is no putting the genie back in the bottle. The U.S. is not far behind Canada on the path to legalizing recreational marijuana. Companies are lining up to take advantage of the largest potential cannabis market in the world. It’s inevitable.

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