Chris Selley: Marijuana legalization is a solid win for sensible government policy

In the past 14 months, Canadians have heard a few reasonable concerns about legalizing marijuana. It might lead to more people using it, for example — including impressionable youngsters, who are famous for taking their moral cues from legislation. There are quite a few reasonable complaints to be made about the law that received Royal Assent on Wednesday, to come into effect Oct. 17. It makes possessing between five and 30 grams of cannabis a criminal offence for children but not for adults, which is odd; and a 14-year maximum sentence for an 18-year-old who shares a joint with a 17-year-old seems a tad overzealous, no?

Those aside, however, Bill C-45’s legislative journey will rightly be remembered as a festival of bad arguments, logical fallacies and paranoia.

We heard constantly about obstacles to legalization that really weren’t. My personal favourite: Canada is signatory to various international treaties obliging us to prohibit drugs such as marijuana. Should we withdraw or reserve from them? Should we advocate they be changed? “If we don’t withdraw from the treaties … we would be violating international law (on the legalization date),” University of Ottawa law professor Steven Hoffman told iPolitics last year.

We didn’t withdraw or reserve; we legalized; and — duh — nobody cares. (God only knows what crimes we’ll commit next: mining the U.S. border? Selling cluster bombs to Assad?)

One common complaint was that the feds were “passing the buck” to the provinces on implementation. It was weird. Canada is a federation. Provinces have different drinking and smoking ages, and very different models for retailing alcohol and tobacco. On what authority, for what reason, would the federal government usurp them on marijuana?

As a G20 leader on legalization, it’s all for the better: as of October, Canada will essentially be running 10 separate experiments. The only downside is that between now and October, as provinces finalize their regimes, we’ll keep hearing the same old mind-numbing questions.

Q: What happens if a province outlaws smoking in public, but also allows landlords to ban smoking? Where are tenants supposed to smoke?

A: Maybe nowhere. Bill C-45 was not intended to ensure a right for every Canadian to have a safe, legal place to smoke weed.

Q: What if employers refuse to allow employees to have any THC in their systems? That’s not necessarily an indicator of impairment.

A: Again, there’s no human right to be able to use marijuana. The courts may well have something to say about testing and impairment issues, but there’s nothing inherently offensive about a job description that requires zero THC.


Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould at a press conference on April 13, 2017 announcing the Liberal government’s plan to legalize marijuana.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/File

Q: But what about impaired driving? How will we test for it?

A: It’s an open question that researchers have been trying to solve for many years. It will be the same problem on Oct. 17 as it is today.

Q: What happens if a U.S. border guard asks a Canadian if he uses marijuana and he says yes? Do we have assurances from Washington that they won’t be denied entry?

A: We’re altering Canadian law, not American law. So what will happen is exactly what happens now: whatever the border guard in question wants. Border guards are laws unto themselves, and no assurances from Washington should ever convince you otherwise.

Q: Will police have enough resources? Police chiefs insist they don’t.

A: Why would police need more resources? Something that was illegal has been made legal, not the other way around.

Bill C-45’s legislative journey will rightly be remembered as a festival of bad arguments, logical fallacies and paranoia

Some of these questions stem from the shock of the new. We are, after all, doing something very bold by Canadian standards. But if you want a horrifying glimpse of what the Liberals were really up against, check out the March 22 debate in the Senate. After months of purported study, senators imagined “looking out across a classroom of 12-to-13-year-old children, all permitted to have five grams of pot on their desks”; demanded to know why the legislation didn’t forbid one-year-olds from possessing more than five grams of cannabis; wondered aloud if servicemen could show up high for duty, or students over 18 for class; and fretted that parents would be powerless to forbid their tweens from growing pot at home.

It was an intellectual bloodbath. And in the dumb-dumb world of modern Canadian politics, I could easily imagine it carrying the day. So kudos to the Liberals for staying the course. They said they wanted to keep marijuana out of the hands of children and cash out of the hands of organized crime, and they’ve made as good a fist of it as anyone had any right to expect.

Some jurisdictions will certainly fail to shut down the black market — not least Ontario, whose ambitions for storefront pot retail currently top out at 40 stores, or one for every chunk of the province the size of Israel. Beyond legalization itself, there’s perhaps not much for some Canadian pot-users to cheer about. But as a non-user, I’m pleased to see any decent policy overcome the innumerable idiocies arrayed against it. More of that, please.

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