Canada’s Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation has released its final report, moving the country closer to legal recreational cannabis.
On December 13, Anne McLellan, chair of the task force, spoke alongside the vice chair, Dr. Mark Ware, about the task force’s report of recommendations to the Ministers of Justice, Health, and Public Safety. The government is expected to introduce cannabis legalization legislation in the spring of 2017.
How the timetable unfolds from there, McLellan said, “is a decision for the government of Canada.”
This is the latest step in the country’s march toward legalization, which began with a campaign promise from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. McLellan reiterated that prohibition allowed criminal organizations to flourish, and gave too many Canadians a criminal record. She said it was clear that not just in Canada, but in other jurisdictions, “people are coming to the conclusion that the prohibition, the prohibitory regime that has existed, is not working and it’s not meeting the basic principals of public health and safety that have to be at the core of this kind of public policy.”
The task force spent five months visiting Colorado and Washington, and speaking with officials in Uruguay, to inform their recommendations, which they wanted to be focused on public health.
Some of those recommendations include:
- The national minimum age to purchase cannabis should be 18.
- Implement advertising restrictions to prevent companies from targeting minors. Interestingly, the task force recommends sanctions against those who advertise falsely or those companies who promote excessive cannabis consumption.
- Packaging should be plain, but contain information like the company’s name, the strain used, the price, how much THC and CBD are in the product, warnings, among other labeling requirements. Packaging should be childproof and also unappealing to kids.
- Edibles should be be packaged in single servings and stamped with a THC symbol. The task force recommends a maximum limit for THC.
- Prohibit mixing of substances, like cannabis and alcohol, cannabis and nicotine, or cannabis and caffeine.
- In an effort to prevent some of the danger associated with producing cannabis products, the task force recommends regulatory oversight of those producing cannabis concentrates.
- The task force wants to develop strategies that “encourage” Canadians to consume “less potent cannabis.” They might do so through cost associated with buying high-THC products.
- The task force also recommends a “flexible legislative framework” that could allow for innovation in the cannabis industry through adapting “to new evidence on specific product types, on the use of additives or sweeteners, or on specifying limits of THC or other components.”
Some major takeaways from the task force’s learning process: “expect surprises,” “learn as you go,” and “build flexibility into the framework.” There is some pressure to get it right because, as McLellan noted, “we are the largest developed country to ever move on legalization.”
On the whole, the cannabis legalization model will be similar to those that unfolded in Colorado and Washington; there is a regulated system from cultivation to sale, and that sale is taxed, and the money goes toward public education and health initiatives. Home cultivation will be allowed (this is prohibited in Washington), and individuals will be permitted to possess more or less an ounce. The form that retail takes will be up to the provinces, which was a priority, according to the task force, which recommended a number of models in the report.
There are key differences between Canada’s proposed framework for legalization and how legalization continues to expand, state by state, in the United States. For example, the task force recommended a minimum age of 18, not 21, which has been the standard in the U.S. When asked if it was difficult to determine this age limit, Ware said it was “a balance between the risks of the black market versus the risks to a developing brain.”
Also, the task force recommended taxing according to potency, an approach recommended by some public health experts that hasn’t taken hold in the U.S., where cannabis taxes tend to be by weight or a percentage of the retail cost. The argument for a potency-based tax is that it would discourage heavy use. (Cannabis Wire has covered the ongoing debate between regulators about potency caps and taxes based on potency.)
Ware emphasized the need for more research related to medical and non-medical cannabis use, for public education, and for the approach to “displace the illegal market that exists at present in Canada” and to “reduce to a minimum the negative injurious effects of cannabis.”
“New information will emerge over time,” Ware said. “There is a need for flexibility, though, in this new policy. As our report indicates, it’s a very complex process. Cooperation between levels of government is crucial to ensure its overall success.”
So while learning will be key, Ware said, “in the report the foundations of the new system are set out which embodies legal access to cannabis to improve public health and health in general.”
The most common question was around the decision to not define stoned driving at this point. McLellan responded that “drug impaired driving is already a challenge in this country. This is not going to be a new challenge created by legalization.” When pushed on whether the task force should have recommended a per se limit (for example, X amount of THC in blood indicates someone is too impaired), McLellan said that “the answer would be yes if we had the science to back up a per se limit,” which would need to hold up in court.
McLellan said that the science isn’t far enough along to justify a per se limit, but that the research is rapidly developing to allow the government to take that step in the future. In the interim, the same public education that informs the public not to drink and drive should be pushed around stoned driving, she said, and that ongoing enforcement efforts around drunk and drugged driving will continue.
In response to concerns about “corporate cannabis,” McLellan said that the task force hopes that there will be “a diversity of producers,” including some entities who wish to transition from the illegal market to the legal one.
At the end of the press conference, Ware emphasized the importance of public education around cannabis, and urged Canadians to read the task force report “over the holidays.”