In October 2018, Canada officially legalized marijuana and other cannabis products for recreational and medical uses, embarking on an experiment in governance that has attracted global attention.
While Canada was not the first country to legalize pot — that distinction goes to the small Latin American nation of Uruguay, which introduced legislation to that effect in 2012 — it is by far the largest, and has proved a test case for how changing the legal status of narcotics that have long been popular on the black market.
Two and a half years later, the experiment is widely viewed as a success. But it has also illustrated some of the problems involved in moving a drug that has been contraband for decades into the mainstream market, and clarified the problems facing criminal lawyers defending clients who have been charged with offenses related to a drug that is no longer illicit.
Legalized, But Regulated
In some ways, the legal problems arising from liberalization of cannabis laws is simply due to misinformation. Cannabis may no longer be illegal in Canada, but that does not mean it isn’t regulated — in fact, part of the logic of legalization was that it would allow the government more control over production and sale of the drug.
This means that it is still possible for Canadians to face possession charges if they are found to have more than 30 grams on their person. And the large number of unlicensed cannabis shops found in every large Canadian city are a testament to the fact that transition plans have not gone as smoothly as they might have.
This means that a Canadian may find themselves charged with possession even if they had no idea that what they were doing was against the law. In cases like these, they will need an experienced criminal defense lawyer who understands the country’s new drug laws and can help mount an effective defense.
Driving Under the Influence is Still a Problem
One of the most common charges both Canadians and Americans face is driving under the influence. But while breathalyzer tests have long been a standard tool for law enforcement officers to determine whether someone is over the legal limit, the equipment needed to test for cannabis isn’t quite so readily available, and does not always indicate whether someone is actually impaired.
Most current roadside tests operate like breathalyzers, measuring the amount of THC (the active ingredient in cannabis) in a person’s saliva.
But just because someone has THC in their system does not mean they are intoxicated, and in one case a patient who was prescribed cannabis for medical reasons had her vehicle impounded following a roadside test, despite the fact that she was able to pass a sobriety test.
Scientists are working on more accurate forms of testing, but in the meantime criminal defense lawyers need to be prepared to go to bat for clients who are using cannabis in responsible and legally-sanctioned ways but who have been charged with offenses nonetheless.
With many U.S. states moving to legalize cannabis for recreational or medical purposes, it is important for criminal defense lawyers to understand how these changes in the legal system will impact their practices, and to stay abreast with developments so they can serve their clients to the best of their ability.