The issue of the legality of marijuana, or weed, in Canada is a complex and controversial one, but it is possible to construct a reasonably brief summary of the issue: No. Weed is not legal in Canada. That’s right, possession of any amount is against the law in Canada; with the exception of medical marijuana which itself is a hotbed of controversy because of the severe limits placed on purchasing and growing legal weed for medical use. Surprised? It is understandable that the perception of the legal status of marijuana is distinct from the reality on the books. There’s good reasons for that disparity. It starts with a recent history of drug legislation in Canada.
Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien joked in 2003 about trying pot once it had been decriminalized with a joint in one hand and the money for the fine in the other. He was essentially using his clownish sense of humour to illustrate his view about why pot should be decriminalized and subject to a ticket and fine, like speeding or parking illegally, rather than going through the criminal justice system. His Liberal government was trying to pass legislation at the time that would have effectively decriminalized weed and would have treated minor possession as an infraction rather than a misdemeanour. Needless to say, the Drug Enforcement Agency, or DEA, in Washington DC was not impressed. The legislation was effectively allowed to die soon after the interview where Chretien made that joke, and the buzz is that the DEA threatened to tie up the border crossings with Canada in order to search for potential marijuana traffickers, should Canada have decriminalized marijuana. Chrétien’s successor, Paul Martin, tried to introduce similar legislation in late 2004, but the bill died when the Liberals lost a confidence motion soon after.
Stephen Harper’s Conservative government is neither in favour of decriminalization nor of legalizing pot. Justice Minister Peter Mackay is studying the idea of ticketing for pot possession, but without considering decriminalization. They are consulting with local governments in the USA and elsewhere, as well as police forces at home to see if it is viable as an alternative to the binary option of turning a blind eye or booking someone caught with small amounts of weed or hashish on their person. The government, however, considers marijuana use harmful and are very much concerned about its effect on the “health and welfare” of youth. Their goal is to reduce, not increase, the availability of pot in Canada. It is a given that they will be against both decriminalization and legalization as long as they are in power. That means that right now, if you get caught with weed and it is not a large amount, you may be booked or you may go free depending on what jurisdiction you are in and whether the police feel like booking you. Legally, they should book you, but enforcement varies across Canada.
The police in Canada are firmly against either decriminalizing or legalizing pot. The courts, however, especially in Ontario, have rendered some decisions which have made current legislation invalid, at least temporarily, as a side effect of their concerns about the availability of medical marijuana. Here’s where it gets complicated. A series of rulings by the Ontario Court of Justice that declared marijuana laws in Canada invalid due to insufficient exemptions for medical use was eventually overturned by the Ontario Appeals court which reinstated the laws but expressed concern about restrictions on medical marijuana use. In other words, police and prosecutors can still charge you for mere possession in Canada. But actual enforcement depends in which province you are caught possessing a little pot. Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, and British Columbia tend to more relaxed about enforcing the laws for small amounts. But do not count on getting off scot free. You are still in violation of the law. If you are caught dealing, you will be booked and charged. Marc Emery, the west coast cannabis activist, was extradited to the USA where he did prison time. He is now back in Canada, but such moves indicate a willingness by prosecutors in Canada to take a hard line on anyone openly selling or dealing weed.
Justin Pierre James Trudeau – you can call him Justin – is the leader of the Liberal Party in Canada since April 2013. He is also the eldest son of the late Pierre Elliot Trudeau, long-time prime minister of Canada (1968 – 1984, save for about 6 months in late 1979). That means that Justin is now the poster boy of progressive politics, having replaced the dour Michael Ignatieff as leader of the Liberals. If guys like Jean Chretien and Paul Martin were in favor of decriminalization, no prizes for guessing what this foppish, young ex-school teacher’s stand on weed is: Legalization and regulation of marijuana was voted on at a Liberal policy convention in early 2012. To be fair, that was before the young MP assumed his role as leader, but you can be sure he was in favour along with the majority of the party. How likely he is to be the next prime minister is an open question, but should the Liberals at some point defeat the Conservatives, it will be interesting to watch how the party and the prime minister react to US pressure against both decriminalization and legalization. And yes, the DEA will continue to pressure Canada, despite individual states south of the border decriminalizing the drug. Remember, the DEA is at war with anyone – at home or abroad – who favors legal or decriminalized drug use. So if you are thinking of becoming a pot refugee in Canada, you might have to wait a while. Because no matter that a clear majority of Canadians favour some sort of decriminalization or even legalization, no matter that cannabis activists point to (overturned) court decisions in Ontario, no matter that police might let you off if you are caught, weed is still illegal in Canada.