Liberals introduce bill to legalize marijuana by July 2018

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OTTAWA—The Liberal government introduced legislation Thursday designed to fulfill an election promise to legalize marijuana by 2018.

The government’s approach to legalization is comprised of two pieces of legislation, one bill to regulate the recreational use, sale and cultivation of marijuana and a second bill that strengthens measures to stop impaired driving. In fact, the entire process has been framed by the government as an effort to keep pot out of the hands of kids, rather than as an opportunity to collect yet another sin tax or to provide Canadian potheads with a legal bit of buzz.

Under the first bill, people would be allowed to possess up to 30 grams of dried or fresh cannabis, and sets the minimum at 18 years of age (although provinces and territories can set a higher legal age). To access their personal stash, consumers could grow up to four plants at home or buy it from a licenced retailer. It is anticipated that dried and fresh pot and cannabis oil will be available first, with edible products to become available later.

Prime Minister Trudeau (who has admitted using pot himself in the past) has repeatedly stressed that the goal of legalization is to restrict access of marijuana to minors and choke off profits from sales by organized crime. The government’s point man on the marijuana file, former Toronto Police Chief and current parliamentary secretary Bill Blair, further stressed that the government has no plan to promote the use of pot and went on to assert that buying, selling or using marijuana outside the regulatory regime will remain a serious criminal offence with stiff penalties. So dreams of a wild west free for all have pretty much gone up in smoke.

A fact that puts recent raids and seizures on the proliferation of distribution centres in context.

Penalties include ticketing for possession that exceeds the personal limit by small amounts, all the way up to 14 years in prison for illegal distribution or sale. The legislation also imposes tough new penalties of up to 14 years in prison for giving or selling marijuana to minors and a new offence with a penalty of up to 14 years in prison will also be created for using a youth to commit a cannabis-related offence.

However, youth who are found in possession of up to five grams of marijuana would not be criminally prosecuted, in order to avoid consequences of criminal prosecution (which has long been a central concern for legalization advocates).

The legalization bill prohibits marketing aimed at appealing to youth, prohibits sales through self-service display or vending machines, and, as part of an overhaul of Canada’s impaired driving laws, makes it illegal to drive within two hours of having an illegal level of drugs in the blood. Similar to the approach to alcohol impairment, penalties will range from a $1,000 fine to life imprisonment, depending on the level of drugs in the blood and whether someone was injured or killed as a result of the impairment.

Although the specific route that legal pot will take to the pipe is not yet determined, the legislation does not prevent provinces from allowing sales at the same place as alcohol. In fact, many of the details of how legalized marijuana will integrate into society is being left up to the provinces and territories.

Although tourists coming into the country will have to leave their pot supply at home, the legislation does allow them to use pot while in Canada.

But the emphasis has been very much on the traditional Canadian values of peace, order and good government, with Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale saying during the announcement that the move to legalize marijuana will be done expeditiously but with care, and that until the new legislation passes, existing laws will continue to be enforced. “This must be an orderly transition,” he said. “It is not a free for all.”

The new impaired driving bill that accompanies the legalization and regulation bill creates three new offences and gives police authority to require saliva tests for drivers suspected of being high—although the details of the test that is undergoing a pilot program with three police services remain unclear. Police will be able to administer the test based on signs such as red eyes or the smell of pot, much like the process that currently applies to alcohol impairment.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said the legislation aims to strike a balance between protecting minors and keeping profits away from organized crime, a theme that has characterized the Liberal spin on the effort since day one.

Conservative health critic Colin Carrie was skeptical about the proposed legislation’s ability to keep pot out of the hands of youth or to keep stoned drivers off the roads, going on to accuse the Liberals of imposing unclear laws designed to help pot smokers, while making the provinces foot the bill and do the heavy lifting on enforcement. “At the end of the day, how much is this going to cost?” he asked.

In the meantime, a cadre of three NDP MPs raised concerns about the impact of continuing to enforce a law that will soon be taken off the books. “The provisions of this bill could have easily been adopted as an interim measure when the Liberals first came to power. That was 18 months ago, but we’re going to wait at least another 15 months,” said NDP Justice Critic Alistair MacGregor. “That’s the point I want Canadians to truly understand, how sincerely unfair this is that the Liberals are taking no action on the prohibition and punishment front.”

While the OPP itself is on the record as opposing the move to legalize pot, the local Manitoulin detachment did not have a comment on the matter, according to Community Services Officer Steve Hart.

The NDP is also pushing for pardons for past convictions and wants the government to apportion more money for harm reduction efforts aimed at the broader question of drug addiction, particularly to address the opioid crisis. 

First Nations are calling for consultation on the legalization and regulation of marijuana. Ontario Regional Chief Isadore issued a press release asserting that First Nations “must have the opportunity to consult and participate fully from the new cannabis legislation.”

“First Nations leadership will focus on the priorities of this new legislation as it pertains to the jurisdiction within the health, social, justice and economy sectors of our communities and how it will impact our families,” he said. “The health and social well being must be the first priority for us.”

Regional Chief Day noted that at the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) annual meeting in December 2016, the chiefs unanimously supported a resolution which directs the organization to push Ottawa for “priorities and incentives to ensure that First Nations are given the opportunity to participate and benefit fully from the development of this new and emerging sector.”

“The level of discussion that has occurred so far on the legalization of marijuana with First Nations in Ontario has been slim to none,” said Regional Chief Day. “This is counterproductive in building a foundation to start this dialogue with Canada. There must be immediate bilateral dialogue that is amendable to First Nations in Ontario.”

When it comes to the workplace, it is clear that employees will continue to have a responsibility to their employers to show up for work sober, although employers already have the challenge of accommodation when use is for medical treatment. Even in the case of medical use, employers do have a range of options available to them such as reassignment and (in limited cases) forced medical leaves of absence while undergoing treatment available to them. Employers will have to review existing policies in light of the legalization of marijuana and references to its illicit use during off-hours.

Meanwhile, Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch has vowed to turn back Liberal efforts to legalize marijuana should she win the leadership and the next federal election, calling marijuana a “dangerous drug” with too many health and safety concerns to be made legal.

The Liberal government has a stated goal of making marijuana legal by July 1, 2018, but between now and then there are many legislative hurdles to be confronted before it will be legal to light up.