Cannabis in a Distinct Society: Quebec’s Idiosyncratic Grapple With Legalization

 In Legalization

In spite of its late-night joie-de-vivre image, Quebec has significantly less enthusiasm toward legal cannabis than anywhere else in Canada.


Quebec does things differently, for better or for worse. As everyone knows who has moved to Quebec from another province only to discover they now have to file two sets of taxes, this is a province that prefers to maintain control of its affairs. As Quebec approaches cannabis legalization, that habit is once more evident.
Already, Quebec is an outlier in the field of cannabis. In spite of its late-night joie-de-vivre image, Quebec has significantly less enthusiasm toward legal cannabis than anywhere else in Canada. In May, a CROP poll conducted on behalf of Radio-Canada revealed an inversion of national attitudes toward legal cannabis in Quebec. Only 40% of respondents were in favour of legalization, while outside of Quebec 58% support the move. Meanwhile, only 27% of respondents supported the sale of edible cannabis products, compared with 40% of respondents outside of Quebec.

There are a variety of theories for this lack of support, most prominent among them the possibility that reduced French-language media coverage of US recreational markets has prevented potential supporters from seeing the benign results of a legal recreational system in action. Others argue that the drive to decriminalize as a means of undermining organized crime receives less support in Quebec because of a deep cynicism across a province marked by decades of organized crime scandals at its highest levels of government (present and past). Perhaps Quebeckers are too fatalistic to imagine anything will hobble organized crime.

These attitudes may reflect the fact that Quebec is the only province in which charges for cannabis possession and trafficking have actually continued rising in recent years. Though the fleur de lys and the cannabis leaf were once inseparable in many Canadians’ minds, the province’s days of official laxity toward cannabis prohibition began changing two decades ago.

Quebec is the only province in which charges for cannabis possession and trafficking have actually continued rising in recent years.

In the mid-1990s, Quebec issued 30% fewer possession charges per capita than anywhere else in the country, but by the end of the decade, official attitudes hardened into the present counterintuitive legal direction. Across the country, possession charges have drastically declined over the last year alone, yet according to the CBC, possession arrests and charges in Quebec are unchanged since 2015, following an upward trajectory that began in 1998. In 2016, Quebec charged 36% more people per capita with possession than anywhere else in Canada.

This is the atmosphere that shrouds the ongoing debate over how Quebec will approach its end of legal cannabis. Yes, it will certainly legalize its own way—but the National Assembly spent the month of September in deep debate about what that way should be.

The Age Issue

Despite Quebec historically offering the youngest legal age in North America for alcohol consumption (18), the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), the most conservative of the province’s four major parties, argued that Quebec’s legal age for cannabis use and purchase should be 21. Ontario, immediately to the west, had already decided its legal age will be 19, the same as its drinking age, which many have argued will simply drive cannabis business an hour out of Montreal to the Ontario border for those not yet 21.

Liberal government sources confirm that Quebec’s legal cannabis consumption age will be 18.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, of the provincial Liberal party (somewhat less conservative than the CAQ), responded to CAQ leader François Legault’s demand by saying, “Does he seriously think he will prevent youths from 18 to 21 from smoking pot? Get real. I think they are smoking already and will continue to smoke.”

The Liberals spent the month leaning toward offering cannabis for sale to those aged 18 and up, in line with the guidelines of the Canadian Pediatric Society, which does not believe cannabis presents significant risk to the mental development of people over that age. Medical-specialists’ group Le Fédération des médecins spécialistes du Québec, meanwhile, argued the age should be 21.


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