The Liberal government’s new pot legislation is premature and half-baked. But things could be worse — it could be doing nothing at all.
The bill, introduced in the House of Commons Thursday, will hasten an end to 94 years of failed prohibition.
Its introduction became inevitable after the new leader of the then-third party blurted out the commitment at a rally in British Columbia four years ago. It’s doubtful even Justin Trudeau understood the consequences of his pledge. By such caprice is history made.
There were no great surprises in the legislation itself. It leans heavily on last December’s report from the task force charged with drawing up the framework for cannabis legislation.
What was more apparent was how much detail has still to be resolved — from taxation to distribution, from packaging to legal driving limits.
The government says that, provided the bill makes its way through Parliament, it intends to provide regulated and restricted cannabis no later than July 2018.
Bill Blair, the parliamentary secretary for justice who has been stickhandling the pot project, called the timeline “highly aspirational” when I interviewed him late last month. But they’ll have to cross that bridge when they drive off it.
In the meantime, we have a bill that is long overdue in a country where illegal cannabis production is a $7 billion industry and impaired driving is the leading criminal cause of death and injury.
With so many government departments involved — Justice, Revenue, Public Safety and Health — the final regulations will inevitably make consumers as frustrated as the pot-smoker who discovers an empty bag of Chips Ahoy! in the cupboard.
But this legislation is not being introduced in a vacuum. The choice is an industry controlled by organized crime or a legal, regulated market.
“Criminal prohibition has failed to protect our kids and our communities,” Blair said Thursday.
As he pointed out, one in five Canadian youths use cannabis and “the profits go to organized crime, with no regard to potency, purity or provenance.”
“This legislation will make Canada safer,” he said.
Substantively, the bill proposes to restrict the legal sale of cannabis to people aged 18 and over, although provinces and territories will have the option of increasing this age limit. The bill aims to avoid criminalizing those under 18, who would not face prosecution for possessing or sharing small amounts of pot.
Adults will be legally able to carry 30 grams of cannabis in public and to grow up to four plants.
The provinces will oversee the distribution and sale of cannabis — though no details on what individual provinces are planning was included in the legislation. If there is no regulated retail network, Canadians can buy online and have the product delivered by mail or courier.
When it comes to driving, the Criminal Code will be amended to bring in new impaired driving laws. Police will be equipped with new oral fluid drug screeners and a positive test would mean a trip to a police station for an evaluation or a blood test. Three new offences will be created, with penalties depending on the drug type and level of drug in the blood. Those levels will be set by regulation at a later date.
The more medicated, the more dedicated
Justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said she is confident in the constitutionality of the roadside test — a patch of black ice on which the whole bill could yet come to a crashing halt.
The Canadian Automobile Association welcomed new penalties for drug-impaired driving but saw problems getting a positive blood test in the two hours required to get a conviction. “This puts a tough burden on law enforcement and raises questions about how workable the provision will be,” it said in a statement.
CAA also said police need more resources to enforce the law effectively.
One provision that was unanticipated was the legislation’s openness to products other than fresh or dried cannabis, such as edibles.
But it was no surprise that the government indicated its intention to clamp down on promotion of pot products.
Ministers said packaging rules will come later but the bill says there will be no sales through vending machines and there will be limits on branding. Promotional material won’t be allowed to feature testimonials, or depict characters or animals.
Brands will not be allowed to evoke positive emotions or a way of life that includes “glamour, recreation, excitement, vitality, risk or daring,” the legislation said.
Producers won’t be happy with restrictions on product differentiation but they can’t complain too loudly — the 42 companies with large-producer licences are gearing up production for a legal market in which they are likely to make a killing.
Provided the government doesn’t tax them to death, producers like Canopy Growth Corporation will enjoy economies of scale that will make it very hard for organized crime to compete. A recent paper by the CD Howe Institute estimated that if the current provincial and federal sales tax is maintained (5 to 15 per cent, depending on the province), then 90 per cent of sales will be made in the regulated legal market.
Mark Zekulin, Canopy’s president, says his five production sites are expanding their capacity in anticipation of 2018. The company’s size means it will be able to manufacture a “very competitively priced product” that satisfies all quality requirements.
Even health providers like the Canadian Nurses Association have given the Liberals their blessing because of the strong emphasis on harm reduction in the legislation.
Blair has been adamant that the legislation is build on a public health, rather than a commercial, framework.
No one was quoting Snoop Dogg: “The more medicated, the more dedicated.”
In fact, Blair said the government is not trying to promote pot, even though it could bring in some desperately needed revenue.
But there was a sense of occasion at the unveiling of the legislation.
It’s clear the introduction of the cannabis bill brings us closer to an end of a prohibition that has helped finance organized crime in this country.
The time is long past to stop making criminals rich.
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