House Call with Carol Hughes

Many questions remain with legalization of cannabis

Last week recreational cannabis became legal in Canada, and while many activists have waited for this moment, there are still a number of related issues that will preoccupy legislators, law enforcement officials, the courts, and citizens for some time. Like alcohol, cannabis will be provincially regulated which means each of those jurisdictions will determine things like age restrictions, availability, and taxes. While not all Canadians are comfortable with recreational cannabis, there is no doubt that there were people consuming the drug in our communities well before the end of prohibition.

When the government was elected with a plan to legalize cannabis, New Democrats entered the new parliament determined to have the criminal records of individuals convicted of single possession expunged. It seemed ludicrous to many that people would carry criminal records on past transgressions for something that was set to become legal. Despite the best efforts of legislators and activists, the government seemed intransigent and offered no signal that they would take this logical step.

This week they relented a little by announcing they will grant pardons for Canadians carrying simple possession records. Individuals who will be pardoned may find this as some relief, but at the end of the day they will still carry a record. That’s why New Democrats are arguing the possession records must be expunged. People with these types of records can be refused from something as simple as coaching kids soccer because they were caught with a joint decades ago.

Some implications are more serious. Even with a pardon, conviction records will still be known to American border officials who can refuse entry to an individual for this reason. The US border is one of the great unknowns in legalization, but people should be well aware that cannabis remains illegal in the United States and agents will have little compassion for individuals found to be transporting the drug across the border no matter how small the amount or whether it was accidental.

Police will have a role to play as well. That’s because driving while impaired by cannabis remains illegal. What has changed is there are new tools to help identify impaired drivers and many forces will be using these to make our roads safer. That said tools, such as a new saliva test, are expensive and not every force has the resources needed to acquire this emerging technology. That’s why New Democrats are calling on the government to provide the necessary resources that are required by provinces and municipalities who will bear the brunt of enforcing many new regulations.

There will be money flowing from the sale of cannabis, but it can’t be viewed as windfall. Instead we will need to invest this money on a number of fronts. As mentioned the federal government will have little to do with enforcing regulations, but should help ensure that the resources are available. Additionally, there will now be the opportunity to study the effects of cannabis across a population in a way that was far more difficult under prohibition. One of the biggest issues addressed in parliamentary debates over legalization was the lack of scientific information on the effects of the drug. Scientists have indicated that these studies will be much easier to run now, but it remains to be seen if the government will help facilitate these with funding. The government should consider that since the results of studies will help inform Canadians of a choice they are now legally able to make and may help others who have no interest understand more about the effects of cannabis too.