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Assuming the federal government’s ambitious timetable is met, on 1st July 2018, Canada will become the first G7 country to have legalised the production, sale, use, and possession of recreational cannabis. They will be only the second country in the world after Uruguay to fully legalise cannabis.

If implemented well, this is a major opportunity for Canada to improve its public health outcomes, reduce young people’s contact with criminals and the justice system, cut the influence and funding of organised crime, and benefit their public finances with additional tax revenue and lower enforcement costs.

Crucially, Canada also has an opportunity to demonstrate to the international community how a regulated cannabis market can work and, through its federalised system, to test the benefits and disadvantages of different approaches to regulation.

Canada’s move fits within a wider, global context of cannabis decriminalisation and medical cannabis legalisation. In the US, eight states have now licensed, or are in the process of licensing, the sale of recreational cannabis.

Canada’s case, however, is different. First, legalisation did not come about through direct democracy (i.e. a referendum) as in American states, but rather as a result of the Liberal Party enacting an election pledge following its victory in October 2015. Second, Canada’s legalisation has been effected through a federal rather than a provincial law, although there will be significant variation among the provinces over how it is implemented.

Some of the issues that have been devolved to provinces to decide are: how much tax to levy; where people will be allowed to smoke; the types of outlets that will be allowed to sell it; how those outlets will get their supply; and whether to increase the minimum age limit from 18.

The merits of the Canadians’ federalist approach are mixed. There is a danger that poor decisions at province-level about regulation and tax could undermine the central aims of the legalisation. If provinces decide on very high retail taxes, for instance, then there may be a big enough price advantage to enable the black market to flourish.

Another danger, which seems fairly likely at the moment, is that reluctant provinces fail to make sufficiently quick progress on implementing the new law. As of early November 2017, just three of the ten provinces (Alberta, Ontario, and New Brunswick) have made proposals for how they will regulate their retail cannabis market, with some issuing calls for the legalisation date to be delayed to 2019.

But, more positively, the federalist model enables Canada to test and pioneer different approaches to cannabis regulation. And as provinces debate how to regulate cannabis, policymakers have to decide how to trade off two critical factors.

The first is eliminating the criminal market for cannabis. This is important in order to sever a major funding source of organised crime and to reduce the exposure of young users to criminal elements. This factor favours making the legal product sufficiently accessible, so it is convenient to buy from retail outlets and those aged 18 and over are able to purchase it, and also sufficiently affordable, with relatively low tax rates, to limit the demand for cheaper, illicit cannabis.

Cracking down on black market demand entails encouraging legitimate private enterprises to enter the market and become established, while enabling their investors to see some kind of return on their capital. Although it is widely expected that existing medical marijuana producers will expand to enter the new recreational market, these incumbents are downplaying their ability to meet all the potential legal demand.

The second factor relates to reducing the overall prevalence of cannabis use, in order to protect public health from what can be a harmful product, particularly for younger smokers. This favours higher sales taxes, higher minimum age limits, stringent licensing of retail outlets, strict advertising and marketing restrictions, and so on.

The new production, distribution, and retail businesses will need to be regulated carefully, in order to limit excessive commercialisation, which could potentially damage public health.

When navigating this trade-off, however, it is important that Canadian policymakers do not elide harm reduction and demand reduction. A harm reduction approach necessarily accepts that there will be demand for cannabis regardless of the law, while ensuring that this demand is met in the safest way possible.

The signs are that the federal government is handling this well: in regulating the advertising of cannabis like cigarettes, but setting a minimum age limit of 18 years old, they have chosen a pragmatic centre-ground.

The chances of Canada’s approach crossing the Atlantic to the UK look slim at the moment. The UK Government remains firmly opposed to any kind of drugs liberalisation. This summer, the Home Office released its first “Drugs strategy” since 2010, which stated: “We have no intention of decriminalising drugs. Drugs are illegal because scientific and medical analysis has shown they are harmful to human health.”

At the last general election, both the main parties, the Conservatives and Labour, committed to maintaining the current prohibition. The Liberal Democrats, however, did propose creating a regulated cannabis market, although focus group research suggests that the policy turned off swing voters in marginal constituencies because it was not perceived as credible.

Like Canada, it seems likely that cannabis will ultimately be legalised in the UK by a party implementing a general election manifesto pledge. While we do obviously have referendums in the UK, they are usually reserved for constitutional questions, rather than for social policy.

The balance of British public opinion remains against legalising cannabis, although this could change over time, as polling that Bright Blue has commissioned shows that younger voters are more likely to support legalisation than their older counterparts. Forty-five percent of 18-28 year olds would be proud to vote for a party that legalised and regulated cannabis, against 31% who would be embarrassed. Among the general population, only 36% would be proud, compared to 39% who would be embarrassed.

By comparison, polling in Canada was stronger prior to Trudeau’s election victory than it is now in the UK. One poll from August 2015 shows a small majority (53%) were in favour of cannabis legalisation. It was undoubtedly an advantage that Canada has relatively high prevalence of cannabis use among its general population of around 12%, while in the UK, the figure is lower, at around 6.5% according to government figures. It also helped that medical cannabis has also been legal in Canada since 2013, which was a precursor to full legalisation in many of the US states too.

Perhaps in a future election, cannabis legalisation could form part of a liberal, progressive manifesto that targets the votes of young British people. Moreover, Trudeau has shown that election victory can itself cause a favourable shift in public attitudes towards the issue. Very few mainstream political voices in Canada are now actively advocating to reverse the decision, concentrating instead of getting restrictive regulation.

It may be that trailblazing countries like Canada can provide clear evidence to UK policymakers of how having a regulated, legal cannabis market leads to reduced harm. But mainstream debate in the UK seems quite distant to where it was in Canada prior to the Liberals’ victory.

Sam Hall is a senior research fellow at Bright Blue