Bill C-45 – the Cannabis Act – received Royal Assent on 21 June 2018, and as of 17 October 2018, the recreational use of cannabis will be legal in Canada. Much of the debate – in Canada and elsewhere – surrounding the legalization of cannabis has involved arguments animated by a philosophically liberal approach to the issue, presenting it as a matter that concerns individual liberty. The assertion is that adults (i.e., those who have reached the legal “age of majority” and do not suffer from any disqualifying cognitive or legal condition) should have the freedom to legally purchase, possess and recreationally use cannabis, in the same way they can alcohol and tobacco products, for example.

Opponents of the legalization or decriminalization of cannabis frequently argue that such a policy is undesirable for a number of reasons, including the detrimental impact upon the cognitive health of youth who regularly use cannabis, its role as a “gateway” drug, and the link between its sale/use and criminal activity. It is often also observed that it is quite common – and appropriate – for governments to limit individual liberty, in terms of placing restrictions on certain types of behaviour and controlling access to various substances that might directly or indirectly generate undesirable consequences for individuals, especially “minors”. Essentially, then, opponents contend that, for the sake of public health and safety, it is desirable and legitimate for the Government to prohibit the sale, possession and use of cannabis for recreational purposes.

So, does the Cannabis Act represent an exaltation of individual liberty at the expense of public health and safety?

While the “spirit” of the Act necessarily (to some degree) embodies a philosophically liberal approach to the recreational use of cannabis, the “letter of the law” seems to be animated primarily by a concern for public health and safety. The stated goals of the Act are to “prevent young persons from accessing cannabis, to protect public health and public safety by establishing strict product safety and product quality requirements and to deter criminal activity by imposing serious criminal penalties for those operating outside the legal framework. The Act is also intended to reduce the burden on the criminal justice system in relation to cannabis” (Government of Canada, 2018).

That language suggests that, while a desire to enable greater individual liberty may enliven the spirit of the Act, it is clearly not the only or even primary consideration animating the content of the Act. Rather, the content of the Act reflects a notably utilitarian approach to the legalization of the recreational use of cannabis.

The utilitarian argument champions the practical and monetary benefits of legalizing the recreational use of cannabis, including the potential for product quality control, decreased crime and increased tax revenue. Utilitarians assert that legalizing the recreational use of cannabis will generate significant benefits for society via considerable savings from reduced policing and prison costs, while tax revenue from the sale of cannabis will potentially generate billions of dollars per year that can be reinvested in public programs that benefit all Canadians.

But, despite the different focus and, in turn, justification for legalizing recreational cannabis use, a utilitarian approach and, more specifically, the stated objectives of the Act, are not  incompatible with the type of individual liberty promoted by philosophical liberalism. Indeed, one of the most famous proponents of individual liberty, John Stuart Mill, acknowledged the legitimacy of governments (and society) restricting individuals’ freedom when their behaviour will cause harm to others – what has come to be known as Mill’s “harm principle”.

In the final analysis, as opposed to sacrificing public health and safety at the altar of individual liberty, arguably, the Cannabis Act represents a reasonable balance between pursuing the goals of philosophical liberalism and responding to the concerns of opponents of the legalization of the recreational use of cannabis. And in a society characterized by a diversity of competing and, at times, conflicting and incommensurable values and beliefs that are all seeking to be represented in public policy, such a compromise is something that should be applauded.

Sources Cited
Government of Canada (2018). An Act respecting cannabis and to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the Criminal Code and other Acts. Ottawa: Government of Canada.