Conservatives fret as Canada’s legal cannabis countdown continues

Weed | by Gregory Beatty

The clock is ticking on the federal Liberals’ pledge to legalize cannabis for recreational use by July 1, 2018. It was a campaign promise in the October 2015 election, so the government’s been working on the file for two years. You’d think that would be enough time to get its doobies in a row. But with nine months to go, things are still hazy as to how the cannabis rollout will go.

South of the border, eight states have gone legal: Nevada, Maine, Colorado, Washington, California, Massachusetts, Alaska and Oregon. So it’s not like it can’t be done. But there, the states acted independently. Federally, and in the other 42 U.S. states, cannabis remains illegal — although 23 states have legalized for medical use.

What Canada’s trying to do is legalize at a national level. Since we’re a federation, that involves some nuances. Under s.91 of The Constitution Act 1867, the feds have jurisdiction over criminal law, so Ottawa can move to make cannabis legal. But under s.92, the provinces control property and civil rights, health and commerce — so they are also part of the legalization equation.

Some provinces, such as Ontario and New Brunswick, have already announced plans to meet the Liberal deadline. Others, such Saskatchewan and Manitoba, are still at the consultation stage on what rules should govern the sale and consumption of cannabis. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and Manitoba’s Brian Pallister — both conservatives — have even called on the Liberals to extend the deadline, arguing they need more time to get ready.

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police has issued a similar appeal. As for Andrew Scheer and the federal Conservatives, they want cannabis to remain illegal.

While the situation looks chaotic, Craig Jones remains optimistic.

“It’s the Canadian way,” says Jones, the executive director of the cannabis advocacy group NORML Canada. “We’ve done it like that with everything, and we probably always will. Quebec marches to its own drum, Alberta marches to its own drum, and so on.”

Even within the cannabis community, there are divisions as to how legalization should look, says Jones.

“There are the hardcore to moderate libertarians, then there are people who are more interested in the public health approach, then there are people like me who think if we can get the criminal sanctions off cannabis it makes it possible to talk about all kinds of things,” he says. “But the criminal penalty has been by far the largest impediment to moving forward.”

To hear some (mostly conservative) politicians and law enforcement officials tell it, come next Canada Day we’re going to be hit by a tsunami of cannabis that will unleash all sorts of social evils, from impaired driving and rampant underage use to overdoses and domestic violence.

Here’s a newsflash: the tsunami’s already here. All legalizing does is bring cannabis production and consumption under government regulation, instead leaving it to the black market.

Sometimes with the go-slow crowd, says Jones, there’s some political posturing going on.

“I’ve been impressed when I talk with police officials, for example, away from the microphones and cameras, they give you quite a different interpretation,” says Jones. “But when they put on their hats and uniforms and the klieg lights come on, they go into a different performance mode.

“There’s also some genuine anxiety where we’re coming out of a long history where cannabis was heavily stigmatized and a lot of people carry the residue of that in their heads,” he adds. “They really haven’t had a chance to think about it critically outside of that ideology and stigma.”

As Jones points out, the key is to remove cannabis from The Controlled Drugs & Substances Act, where it’s lumped in with dangerous and addictive drugs such as heroin, crystal meth and cocaine, with penalties for possession, production and trafficking ranging from fines to five-plus years of jail time. Once cannabis is legalized, we’ll be able to see how the recreational market develops under different provincial regimes and fine-tune things accordingly.

“I think it’s impractical and unreasonable to expect that we’re going to get everything right off the top,” says Jones. “One of the lessons that came out of Colorado is that if you start with a tighter regime it’s easier to relax it than if you start with a more relaxed regime and then try to tighten it.

“It’s possible the government of Canada took some lessons from that, but ultimately what’s going to happen is that the provinces will be laboratories of democracy,” he says. “They will cut their own path, and I’d say 10 or 15 years from now we’ll have a regime that will be more or less uniform across the country as the provinces learn from each other, the U.S., and other jurisdictions around the world.”

B.C. has a thriving independent retail sector in Vancouver and Victoria, and it’s hard to envision the province’s NDP government reining that in. Ontario, though, is setting up a “Cannabis Control Commission” and will sell cannabis the same way it sells liquor — through a separate system of public sector retailers.

“I was really encouraged to hear that the Ontario government took the advice of the federal task force, which NORML also endorsed, to separate the cannabis market from alcohol so they would not be vended from the same storefront,” says Jones. “I wouldn’t be surprised if other provinces follow some variation on that model.”

That’s what New Brunswick plans to do. Later, regulations could perhaps be loosened to allow for more craft production and independent retailers, as has been the case with alcohol in recent years.

But the first step is legalization. And it can’t come soon enough, says Jones.

“Frankly, we have bigger fish to fry, because we have an opioid epidemic in Western Canada and it’s creeping its way east,” he says. “I’m hoping if we can get cannabis right, we can draw back, take a deep breath and look at how we might approach other illicit drugs based on public health principles.” ❧