Ottawa vs. the Provinces: The Legalization Deadline Showdown Intensifies

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister didn’t mince words when, at a press conference marking the end of the annual premiers meeting July 19, he spoke about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plan to enact legislation legalizing recreational marijuana in July 2018.

“The prime minister wants to stick to his deadline. That’s super-duper,” he said, sitting at a long table flanked by his counterparts from across the country. “He needs to then hear what the premiers of his country, our country, have said we need help with.”

“The prime minister wants to stick to his deadline,” said Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister. “He needs to then hear what the premiers have said we need help with.”

Trudeau’s proposed legislation calls for the provinces to oversee the distribution and sale of recreational marijuana and to take on some related responsibilities. It’s a tall order — some observers have accused Ottawa of forcing the provinces to do the heavy lifting — and provinces say they need help.

At the July meeting, the premiers called for Ottawa to help them sort out issues related not just to distribution but also to taxation, safety, justice, and public education. They said if Ottawa doesn’t “engage adequately” with the provinces, they will call for an extension of the deadline. Ottawa says the deadline is non-negotiable — and a showdown is looming, one that casts uncertainty on the timing and composition of Canada’s recreational marijuana laws.

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Understanding the implications

Where and to whom will recreational marijuana be sold? Those are two of the most pressing questions facing lawmakers. Four months before the proposed legislation was unveiled in April, the federal Task Force on Cannabis Legalization issued a report recommending that marijuana not be sold in government-run liquor stores because mixing alcohol and marijuana can lead to higher levels of intoxication. Nonetheless, politicians in at least three provinces, British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario, have expressed interest in having marijuana sold in such stores.

The proposed legislation also sets the minimum age to access recreational marijuana at 18 years and gives the provinces the option of setting it higher. But many provincial politicians want a standard age set across the country to avoid the hodgepodge that now exists for alcohol. In most provinces, the legal age to purchase alcohol is 19 but in three provinces, Alberta, Manitoba and Newfoundland, it is 18. This too needs to be sorted out.

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In addition, the provinces say they need more time and resources to enforce the part of the proposed legislation that strengthens measures to prevent impaired driving. Trudeau’s legislation effectively assigns law-enforcement officers an array of new tasks, from taking saliva samples to administering blood tests.

“Do we understand what the highway traffic implications are?” Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said at the press conference. “We have to make sure that we can keep people safe.”

Prince Edward Island Premier Wade MacLauchlan has said police would have to be taught how to conduct the new testing and how to testify in court regarding impairment related to drug use. There aren’t enough people in Canada trained to do that right now, he added.

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Manitoba’s Pallister echoed those concerns when he said provinces need more time to ensure proper roadside testing is established to keep drug-impaired drivers off the roads. He also said more time is needed to educate the public about the danger of driving high.

Law enforcement officials have delivered a similar message. Mario Harel, president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs Of Police, went a step further and said police will also need extra funds to buy special equipment and train officers to detect drug-impaired drivers. He said about 2,000 experts would be needed, more than three times the current total.

Wayne Kalinski, vice chair of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police’s substance abuse committee, feels the same way. He told Leafly that Ontario police officers have to be sent to the U.S. to learn how to detect drug impairment in drivers, which is costly.

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A big question these specially trained officers face is, how much THC is too much? Though a driver with two nanograms of THC per millilitre of blood would be considered legally impaired under the new legislation, there is no scientific consensus on how much THC actually constitutes impairment.

“Until we have a ruling from the court, we won’t know for sure,” says Kalinksi, who is also chief of police in Orangeville, a town 50 miles northwest of Toronto.

“With all these issues outstanding, we don’t have a problem with a slower pace,” he told Leafly. “We’re in no hurry for this legislation to be enacted.”

Despite all these concerns, the Trudeau government hasn’t budged. In June, the prime minister said Ottawa had given the provinces and municipalities “lots of time” to prepare for legalization and added that it was “time to move on.”

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On the same day the premiers held their recent press conference, Trudeau said he was holding firm on the deadline because of concerns about crime. As it stands, he said, young people have easy access to marijuana when they shouldn’t and criminals and street gangs are profiting from illegal sales. “We need to put an end to this policy that doesn’t work.”

But that rationale is flawed in the eyes of Canadian police. Harel said organized crime won’t simply withdraw from the marijuana market the moment recreational cannabis becomes legal. The battle against the illegal drug trade will continue.

Canada’s 50-plus licensed producers will be among the biggest stakeholders in the recreational marijuana market but they haven’t weighed in on the tussle between the federal government and the provinces, at least not publicly. But one Ontario-based producer, Beleave, agreed to talk to Leafly.

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“We feel there will never be enough time to adequately prepare [for legalization of recreational marijuana],” said Ned Mikasin, the company’s chief business development officer. ”If given the opportunity the provinces would likely drag this out indefinitely. The federal government should lean on them to do the best they can in the time provided,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s important for there to be a skeleton framework that can be fine-tuned over time.”

That being said, Mikasin wouldn’t be fussed if the proposed legislation were enacted later than July 2018. “If anything it would give us more time to plan and to stock more product on our shelves,” he said.

Mikasin and others in the industry are waiting to see how the Trudeau government responds to the provinces’ newly formed working group, which will identify common concerns, seek answers from Ottawa and provide recommendations by November on how to move forward on the legalization of recreational cannabis.

No doubt about it, says Manitoba Premier Pallister, something’s gotta give. “There are too many unanswered questions,” he says, “too many issues that have not been addressed for us to rush into what is an historic change.”