Canada, 5 Years of Cannabis Reform

Liz Filmer
28 Oct 2023

It's been five years now since Canada legalised recreational cannabis back in October 2018. Before this landmark ruling, there were many differing opinions. Some predicted an economic "goldrush," while others foresaw public health "tragedies."

Here are the real effects of legalisation in Canada in the last five years. 


 Many were concerned that legalising cannabis would trigger "hordes of stoned teenagers". Unsurprisingly, the number did rise after legalisation but not to the degree expected. Government surveys put the usage rate at nine per cent in 2011, 15% in 2017 and 20% in 2019.

Whilst there was a boost following legalisation that went beyond the

ongoing trend, part of that may have been a result of people becoming more open about cannabis use. In contrast, teenage cannabis use hardly changed after 2018, suggesting that teenagers who wanted cannabis continued to buy it easily on the black market from dealers.


Canada's previous prime minister, Stephen Harper, claimed cannabis was "infinitely worse" than tobacco. His successor, Justin Trudeau, instead said legalisation would "protect" health.

Cannabis-related hospital visits by adults grew before 2018 and continued to rise following legalisation. Compared to figures from early 2011, the rate in Ontario was roughly three times higher in 2018 and five times higher in 2021. The post-2018 growth was attributed to both legalisation and ongoing trends.

However, there have been some more severe health impacts. There has been undeniable growth in the number of children visiting hospitals due to accidental cannabis consumption. In children under ten, there was a nine-fold increase in ER visits and a six-fold increase in hospitalisations.


 It was a concern that legalising cannabis could cause an uptick in impaired driving offences. Police complained that they did not possess the necessary equipment to detect cannabis impairment in drivers adequately.

Research on whether legalisation has resulted in more cannabis-impaired driving is inconclusive. This is partly because government reports don't typically specify which substances caused the impairments.

However, It is known that overall, drug-impaired driving, which includes any substance except alcohol, did increase before and after 2018. In comparison to 2011, drug-impaired driving arrests had roughly doubled by 2017 and quadrupled by 2020.

There have also been continuous increases in traffic accident injuries that involve cannabis. Compared to 2011, injury rates in Ontario were roughly two times higher than in 2017 and three times higher in 2020.


 The federal government expected legalisation to reduce police time spent on cannabis enforcement, and advocates hoped to see fewer arrests, especially within marginalised groups.

However, Official figures reveal that the declines in arrests that legalisation triggered were not substantial. The reason? Because arrests for illegal cannabis possession had already been on the decrease long before legalisation. By 2018, the arrest rate was already a vast, 71 per cent lower than in 2011. Arrests fell again in 2019, bottoming out and leaving little room for further rate drops.

Arrests for illegal distribution offences, such as growing and trafficking, fell by 67% between 2011 and 2018. A trend that continued after 2018.


 Hopes were high that legalisation would lead to an economic boom time, and there was an influx of international investors helping fund Canadian cannabis companies. There were also many debates about how the new tax revenue should be distributed.

The cannabis business did boom in some ways following legalisation. However, most provinces initially lacked enough stores. Sales have surged from $42 million in October 2018 to $446 million in July 2023 and are now half as large as beer sales.

However, some regions now have the problem of having too many cannabis stores with competition, meaning that many businesses struggle to stay afloat. This has resulted in many corporations and their shareholders losing billions of dollars. Only the government-owned cannabis agencies seem to be the ones who remain consistently profitable.


 Legalisation did cause some changes, but it was also a government response to changes that were already afoot. Three potential readings that can be taken away from the Canadian legalisation process include.

Cannabis legalisation research needs to take into consideration existing trends. It's not viable to rely on simple before and after comparisons. To help this, Governments should be collecting and publishing more cannabis data.

Secondly, Canadian policymakers should stop looking at whether legalisation was the cause of specific cannabis problems and instead focus on resolving them.

Thirdly, other countries currently contemplating legalisation, such as Germany, Denmark and the U.S. Canada's experience, should serve as a valuable case study. Policymakers must review their trends before legalising because the outcomes might not be as expected.

More on this topic from Soft Secrets:

Canada destroys record amount of Weed

Did legalisation boost cannabis stocks?

Liz Filmer