Canada Unveils New Plans to Legalize Marijuana

The Canadian federal government moved to fulfill a campaign promise last Thursday by tabling new legislation to legalize marijuana use across the country. Bill C-45, once passed, would allow adults 18 years and older to legally buy, possess, and cultivate cannabis.

The Liberals propose that, once passed, the new laws will establish a “strict legal framework” for the production, sale, distribution and possession of pot, and make it against the law to sell cannabis to youth or use a young person to commit a crime related to weed.

“If your objective is to protect public health and safety and keep cannabis out of the hands of minors, and stop the flow profits to organized crime, then the law as it stands today has been an abject failure,” Ralph Goodale, Public Safety Minister, told reporters at the news conference last week. “Police forces spend between $2 billion and $3 billion every year trying to deal with cannabis, and yet Canadian teenagers are among the heaviest users in the western world...we simply have to do better.”

New penalties would range from a simple police citation to 14 years behind bars- unless it involves the selling of weed to youth. The government aims to establish “significant penalties” for those who engage young Canadians in cannabis or cannabis-related offenses, and vow to take a “zero-tolerance approach” to drug-impaired driving.

Some of the highlights of the bills are as follows:

  • Sales are to be restricted to adults 18 and older, although individual provinces have the jurisdiction to increase their own minimum age
  • People 18+ are allowed to publicly possess 30 grams (about one ounce) of dried cannabis (or equivalent in non-dried form)
  • Sales by mail or courier through a federally licensed producer is allowed in regions without a regulated retail system
  • Adults aged 18 or older would be allowed to grow up to four cannabis plants per residence (with plants not exceeding one meter in height)
  • Adults would be allowed to produce legal weed products, like food or drinks, for personal use at home
  • Travelers entering Canada would still be subject to inspections for prohibited items- including cannabis
  • Package designs deemed appealing to youth are prohibited i.e. cartoon characters, endorsements, or images that connect cannabis with a glamorous or exciting lifestyle
  • Possession, production, and distribution outside the legal system would remain illegal, as would imports or exports without a federal permit. Such permits will only cover limited purposes, such as medical or scientific cannabis or industrial hemp
  • Regulation of THC in a driver’s bloodstream
  • Driving within two hours of ingesting an illegal amount of THC will be punishable by fines ranging from up to $1,000.00 to up to life in jail
  • Roadside tests will be developed to measure THC and impairment levels

The government says that sales will only entail fresh and dried cannabis, cannabis oils and seeds and plants for cultivation at the moment. Sales of edibles will come later, once regulations for production and sale can be developed and enforced.

“The current system of prohibition is failing our kids,” said Liberal Member of Parliament Bill Blair, a former Toronto police chief and the government’s point man on the legalization of marijuana. The plan is to have a legalized pot system in place by the end of June 2018. Blair added. “We have a responsibility to act as expeditiously as we can...we can’t drag our feet; we aspire to get this done as quickly as possible.”

Goodale made it a point at the news conference to remind everyone that existing laws remain in effect until the new legislation is formally passed and proclaimed the law of the land. “As the bill moves through the legislative process, existing laws prohibiting possession and use of cannabis remain in place, and they need to be respected,” he said. “This must be an orderly transition; it is not a free for all.” Once passed, the Liberal bills will make Canada only the second nation, after Uruguay, to completely legalize marijuana for recreational use, and the first member of the G7 to legalize marijuana for recreational use across the country.

I think it’s hilarious that Goodale sought to emphasize that the current laws must be followed, despite the fact that he called the current regime an “abject failure.” But it makes sense: many illegal marijuana stores sprang up across several major cities after Justin Trudeau was elected in 2015 in anticipation of these new laws. Police forces have been cracking down on these stores, as the police claim they are being supplied by black-market growers or organized criminal groups. Additionally, the assertions by shop owners that they only sell to medical users are questionable.

That’s one of the good things noted in these bills: the current medical marijuana system in place will remain relatively untouched. However, the targeted efforts of local police charging dispensaries wearing balaclavas, arresting and charging frontline employees with trafficking offenses, and seizing cannabis and all cash on the premises of small dispensaries sends a concerning message. Legalization may provide the necessary infrastructure for “legitimate” revenue, but it seems more likely that local growers and dispensaries are going to be cut out of the profits in favor of corporate elites who can lobby for the necessary permits.

With almost 60,000 possession arrests in 2015, are the police going to continue to target weed users and shops in the coming year? It remains glaringly unclear where users will be able to buy cannabis. Several provinces restrict alcohol sales to government-run stores and may be able to quickly implement marijuana sales there, but late last year a federal task force recommended that weed not be offered in shops that also sell alcohol. Most provinces have come forward saying that they will need more time to establish the proper marketplace for legal marijuana. Many are worried about meeting that June 2018 deadline.

One of the most important issues received no answers from the Canadian government. Trudeau and his Liberals have not stated how cannabis will be priced and how it will be taxed. There are no projected revenues either. Of course, it’s a tricky question, but if the Liberals are setting deadlines and putting forth bills to a vote, perhaps they should have sat down and crunched some numbers? I’m actually a huge fan of the legalization of marijuana as a means of regulation and taxation, but taxing weed too high will just continue to grow the black market. Taxes should at least be a point of discussion, considering the $5.4 billion in legal sales the US experienced from just a handful of states making the leap.

Another item of concern comes from figuring out how to measure impairment. Although the bills, totaling 159 pages, allow for roadside testing, no specifications have been made about methodology or process. Several police forces, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, are testing two types of screening devices using saliva, but it seems ill-advised to simply hand over that authority to the police. There seems to no longer be a “reasonable” suspicion that an individual has alcohol or marijuana in their system to administer a test or even a search. Although I’d like to think that cops will employ logic or even compassion in this regard, I think it’s more likely that they will be abusing this authority in proportions that will raise alarms. There are certain communities, black or indigenous for example, who will be unfairly targeted for these tests- it will be an extension of the current problems we are already facing. The legalization aspect is great for listing exact quantities allowed to try and cut back on the overwhelming possession charges, but I fear harassment levels will be on the rise. Current individuals in the system for marijuana possession are still in the air as well. In 2014, more than 24, 540 people in Canada were charged with pot possession; what will happen once pot becomes legalized?

Overall, this is a great step in facilitating the need for marijuana on a recreational basis. A large percentage of the population is already using cannabis in a similar manner as alcohol and nicotine, which is tightly controlled and regulated. The government has earmarked a healthy $9.6 million over five years for a broad-based public education campaign, but I think they perhaps need to work on educating themselves first. Legalization does not just mean restricting access. It means acknowledging and addressing the harms of disproportionate policing and owning up to the selective use of the criminal justice system. I’m excited for our northern neighbors, but a lot remains to be seen about how all of these procedures will be implemented and enforced.

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