Canada Leading the Way on Marijuana and Criminal Justice Reforms


Supporters of cannabis legalization and greater criminal justice reforms celebrated the overwhelming victory of Canada’s Liberal Party less than a month ago as the party’s platform noted the need to be smarter on crime, including ending the failed policy of marijuana prohibition. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wasted no time mandating that federal officials embark on landmark changes to the Canadian criminal justice system that had fallen into many of the same deficiencies we experience here in the United States, namely that harsh sentences are disproportionately levied against minorities and the poor.

CBC reports:

“You should conduct a review of the changes in our criminal justice system and sentencing reforms over the past decade with a mandate to assess the changes, ensure that we are increasing the safety of our communities, getting value for money, addressing gaps and ensuring that current provisions are aligned with the objectives of the criminal justice system,” reads Trudeau’s letter to Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.


“Outcomes of this process should include increased use of restorative justice processes and other initiatives to reduce the rate of incarceration amongst indigenous Canadians, and implementation of recommendations from the inquest into the death of Ashley Smith regarding the restriction of the use of solitary confinement and the treatment of those with mental illness,” Trudeau wrote in his mandate letter.


Overall, the changes mark a fundamental shift to a less “punitive” approach to criminal justice, says Carissima Mathen, a law professor at the University of Ottawa.

“Prime Minister Trudeau has given Jody Wilson-Raybould a very full plate, a very ambitious agenda, a very challenging agenda, but one that if fully realized could really change the face of the justice system in Canada,” she said. “So a potentially very exciting set of challenges.”

Of course, any substantial notion of criminal justice reform needs to include cannabis legalization, as Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has noted, thus Trudeau has tasked three federal ministers to collaborate on a proper plan to regulate marijuana. Ministers of Health, Justice and Public Safety have all been mandated to assist in the implementation of legalizing and regulating marijuana. Minister of Health Jane Philpott told CBC that, “thoughtful Canadians recognize that the current system isn’t working,” and that she is being briefed by scientists and looking abroad for assistance in developing the proper program as “the world is going to be looking to Canada to make sure we do the job well.”

Nations across the globe will certainly be looking to Canada as the country works to reverse the failed consequences of cannabis prohibition and other misguided “tough on crime” policies that don’t accomplish its stated goals. Canadian voters wisely voted for real change and the country is now on the path towards policies that are practical and rooted in the foundational principles of a free society.

The United States has finally started to understand the folly of our criminal justice system, a system that has led to a new era of Jim Crow-like policies that have devastated too many black communities, and poor people, regardless of their color. Canada leading the way on marijuana and criminal justice reforms will only help the U.S. move towards more sane policies, hopefully ushering in a wave of sensible, smart and compassionate reforms across the globe.


Anthony Johnson

Anthony, a longtime cannabis law reform advocate, was Chief Petitioner and co-author of Measure 91, Oregon's cannabis legalization effort. He served as director of both the New Approach Oregon and Vote Yes on 91 PACs, the political action committees responsible for the state's legalization campaign. As director of New Approach Oregon, Anthony continues to work towards effectively implementing the cannabis legalization system while protecting small business owners and the rights of patients. He sits on the Oregon Marijuana Rules Advisory Committee and fights for sensible rules at the legislature as well as city councils and county commissions across the state. Anthony helps cannabis business comply with Oregon's laws and advises advocates across the country. He also serves as content director of both the International Cannabis Business Conference and the Oregon Marijuana Business Conference, helping share the vision of moving the cannabis industry forward in a way that maintains the focus on keeping people out of prison and protecting patients. He was a member of the Oregon Health Authority Rules Advisory Committee, assisting the drafting of the administrative rules governing Oregon’s state-licensed medical marijuana facilities. He first co-authored and helped pass successful marijuana law reform measures while a law student at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law. He passed the Oregon Bar in 2005 and practiced criminal defense for two years before transitioning to working full-time in the political advocacy realm. His blogs on Marijuana Politics are personal in nature and don't speak for or reflect the opinions of any group or organization.