Canada marks 5 years of legal marijuana, Mexico close behind

Canada and Mexico have legalized cannabis but the U.S. remains an outlier.

It's been five years since Canada legalized marijuana. So how has that worked out? A new study says it's, pardon the term, a mixed bag. It's been beneficial from a social justice standpoint and sort of a draw when it comes to public health.

It's been beneficial for marijuana users, who no longer have to fear imprisonment and criminal records while its effect on public health has been relatively slight, researchers said, while cautioning that it's too soon to draw firm conclusions.

"At this stage, cannabis legalization in Canada appears not to have been the public health disaster anticipated by some of its opponents, but it cannot be described as a comprehensive or unequivocal success for public health either," said Dr. Benedikt Fischer, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, BC, the lead author of the study, published in the CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal).

While there are indications marijuana consumption has gone up since legalization, criminal convictions for cannabis-related crimes among youth have dropped dramatically, one study found.

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, said in a CBC report that the effects were dramatic.

"From the perspective of a criminologist, legalization has been successful with respect to reducing the criminalization of people for cannabis offences," said Owusu-Bempah, who is also an adviser to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and director of research for Cannabis Amnesty.

Marijuana elsewhere

Mexico legalized recreational use of marijuana in 2021, three years after it had legalized medicinal cannabis.

Fans of the weed should be aware, however, that there are still restrictions on its use and – especially – on importing it. Visitors to Canada or Mexico should only buy cannabis locally and, in some cases, should not smoke it in public. Ask around to find out what local laws are.

Consumers visiting the U.S., where the situation is starkly different, should be certain they have no marijuana or any other substance with them, or in their luggage. Even the slightest trace of an illegal drug can cause big problems at the border.

Some U.S. states and localities have legalized marijuana but it remains illegal under federal law. This means that consumers can't travel from one state to another without risking arrest and, in most cases, can't use credit cards to purchase cannabis products.

In California, the largest U.S. state and the country's largest marijuana growing region, legalization has not gone smoothly. Many growers and users continue to grow, sell and buy weed illegally, to evade taxes and avoid regulations they say are cumbersome. Gov. Gavin Newsome (D) recently vetoed legislation that would have allowed pot cafes but at the same time signed a measure that loosens some packaging regulations.

In Florida, sometimes seen as a mirror version of California, recreational use of marijuana is still illegal and heavy fines and jail terms can result for those nabbed by police. Recreational marijuana is legal, however, with the proper prescription.

No dramatic outcomes in Canada

The evidence indicates that cannabis use, cannabis-related emergency department visits and admissions, and cannabis-related impaired driving have stayed the same or increased, according to the study.

On the other hand, most cannabis consumers now obtain their cannabis from legal, rather than illegal, sources, and cannabis-related arrests, along with personal burdens from stigma and possible criminal records among adults and youth have decreased substantially. The authors argue that these are important social justice benefits that may have indirect positive health effects.

"These major societal benefits of legalization must be included in any systematic assessments of the policy reform's impacts," the researchers said.

The researchers said that "ongoing monitoring" of the effects of legalized cannabis, among adults, youth and high-risk people, and major health harms such as cannabis use disorder, cannabis-related injuries, hospital admissions or emergency department visits, and related crime and other socioeconomic indicators.