Shortly after the news media heard the outlines of Canada’s proposed marijuana legalization law yesterday, a number of ministry officials met with a group of stakeholders in Ottawa to hear their concerns. Judging by their feedback, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (above) has taken a remarkable first step–but his government still has work to do.
As a longtime advocate for the legalization of cannabis in Canada I was invited to participate by conference call in the stakeholders Q&A. I entered the session with trepidation but came away, surprisingly, feeling confident and reassured.
This is far from over. Many stakeholders are still in active lobbying mode.
Bill C-45, as the legalization measure is known in the House of Commons, is expected to be approved and take effect on or before July 1, 2018. It presents Canada and the rest of the world with a roadmap for ending cannabis prohibition once and for all. The government’s mandate has always been to restrict access for youth and to de-fund organized crime. This proposal does that.
During its five months of research, the government’s Task Force on Marijuana Legalization and Regulation encouraged a broad discussion of issues among a number of stakeholders. Their final report, issued last December, influenced the broad outlines of the bill. Yesterday’s Q&A once again highlighted specific concerns from those leaders, who ranged from tiered licencing for artisanal and craft producers, diversion of medical marijuana, inter-provincial trade, and continued protection and access for patients.
During those Task Force consultations, advocates who differed, and often represented polar opposite positions, sat side by side to plead their cases to those at the head of the table. Today wasn’t terribly different, as officials representing law enforcement, the pharmaceutical industry, medical marijuana patients, licenced producers, and medical professionals brought their specific concerns to government officials.
The issues of most interest to those at the Q&A included:
* Separation of classes for cannabis production licences, and separation from the current Health Canada licencing protocol. There was a general call for the government to allow for a greater diversity of producers.
* Inter-provincial trade and mail-order distribution.
- Patient advocates wanted to make sure that the government continued its commitment to patients, and not allow a gap in medical access to occur.
- There was some concern about advertising and promotion, prohibition of packaging appealing to youth, or packaging/advertising that’s false or misleading. Government officials were clear that local branding will be allowed.
- Other issues of concern: Amending the non-smokers health act; workplace safety; child-resistant packaging; import-export licensing; and the need for branding to allow adults to make informed choices about product quality.
It’s clear that this is far from over. Some folks at yesterday’s session were still in active lobbying mode.
This is especially the case regarding adult-use cannabis distribution. The form that will take will be left up to the provinces. Currently in Canada there’s considerable disparity between what might be called the East Coast and West Coast approach. British Columbia, which has a long history of cannabis tolerance, has licenced dispensaries in Vancouver, Victoria and smaller communities. Toronto, by contrast, has engaged in targeted and repeat raids and closures of the same types of retail outlets. It’s likely that these two approaches will carry over to the adult use market.
It will be imperative for the current gray market industry to get on board as the other voices in the room are making their cases for their own positions in the industry. I’m optimistic that politicians and policy makers, if given reliable evidence-based information, will do the right thing for their communities. The best example of this is the argument against combining alcohol with cannabis distribution. This will be an issue in every province, as the unions have strong relationships with all branches of government. We’ve already seen this play out in California, where the Teamsters union, which has tens of thousands of alcohol truck-driving members, is currently lobbying to have the state adopt a distribution model similar to alcohol.
Law enforcement spokespeople have been vocally opposed to home cultivation allowances, which they see as costly, dangerous and unenforceable. That position was reiterated yesterday. They also expressed continued concern over diversion from the medical marijuana system into the illicit market. Clearly the government is listening and intends to overhaul aspects of the ACMPR within the next five years to align with new adult use regulations. It is worth noting that the arguments presented in favour of home cultivation as a comprehensive and responsible tool in avoiding black market access are the same arguments the police use to suggest it is a bad idea. There are two sides to every coin.
This is a great week for Canada and the future of cannabis. We know the world is watching and our work here is not done. There are many voices in the room and we have to continue to be vigilant about the issues that we know will take us to where we need to go in the future.