The Canadian government says it will introduce legislation next year to decriminalise and legalise the sale of cannabis, making Canada the first G7 country to permit widespread use of the substance.
The announcement was made by Canada's health minister, Jane Philpott, at a United Nations drug conference in New York. It follows through on a promise made during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's successful election campaign last year.
Philpott said details of the legislation are being worked out, but she vowed that the government "will keep cannabis out of the hands of children and profits out of the hands of criminals."
With the Liberals holding a majority in the House of Commons, the cannabis legislation is likely to pass. The path toward the legalisation of cannabis is the latest in a string of policy announcements from the 44-year-old Trudeau that have moved Canada to the left after a decade of Conservative Party rule, including last week's unveiling of legislation to permit assisted suicide.
Trudeau, whose new government remains extremely popular, has long been associated with the cannabis legalisation issue. While an opposition party member in Parliament, Trudeau admitted to occasional use of cannabis. "I think it's five or six times that I've taken a puff. It's not my thing," he told reporters at the time.
The Conservative Party attempted to use that statement as proof that Trudeau was a political lightweight and a pothead. In the 2015 election, the Conservatives ran ads in ethnic newspapers falsely alleging that Trudeau backed the sale of cannabis to children.
The attack ads failed, in part because most Canadians no longer see the legalisation of cannabis as a problem. A recent survey by Nanos Research, an Ottawa public opinion firm, showed that 68 per cent of Canadians "support" or "somewhat support" legalising cannabis and only 30 per cent are opposed.
The population is more divided when it comes to allowing Canadians to grow cannabis at home, and about 50 per cent of respondents said that they expect legalisation to lead to more use by those younger than 21.
Unlike in the United States, where cannabis regulation is shared by the states and the federal government, in Canada the issue falls almost solely under federal jurisdiction. Cannabis use has been expanding since a court ruling in 2000 allowed Canadians to possess and grow small amounts for medicinal reasons.
Full legalisation will make pot available in a way similar to alcohol. That could encourage Americans, particularly those in border areas, to pop over for a puff or two.
Already, Ontario's provincial premier, Kathleen Wynne, has volunteered that the provincially owned liquor monopoly would be happy to sell the drug. Canada's major drugstore chains have said that they would like to get in on the business, too.
After several court rulings, commercial cannabis operations have sprouted across the country. Although currently limited to medicinal sales, the companies have been keenly anticipating legalisation allowing for widespread use.
One study by a leading Canadian bank estimated that legalisation could spark development of an annual cannabis trade worth about C$10 billion (NZ$11n).
Brendan Kennedy, president of Privateer Holdings of Seattle, welcomed the Canadian announcement. His company owns Tilray, a medicinal cannabis facility in British Columbia, and he is looking to build a facility that would supply the market for recreational cannabis in Canada.
"The eyes of the world are on Canada as the medical marijuana program matures and the recreational program is being implemented," he said in an interview.
"Canada will be the first G7 country to have a national recreational program different from Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington," where state laws allowing cannabis use still bump up against US federal prohibition.
There is still a series of negotiations required between the national government and the provinces to figure out regulation, taxation and distribution. Trudeau's point man on the issue is Bill Blair, a former Toronto police chief.
Blair said cannabis should be treated like such intoxicants as alcohol.
"We control who it's sold to, when it's sold and how it's used. And organised crime doesn't have the opportunity to profit from it."