The federal Liberal government has finally launched its long-awaited effort to legalize recreational marijuana, setting in motion a host of sweeping policy changes for public safety and health across Canada.
The suite of bills was introduced today in the House of Commons by Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.
The bills are sure to come under heavy scrutiny in the coming weeks and months as Ottawa and the provinces and territories hash out the finer jurisdictional details of major issues like distribution and law enforcement.
The federal plan also contains efforts to promote drug education—part of the Liberal pledge to try and make the drug less accessible to youth.
Health Minister Jane Philpott says criminalizing cannabis has not deterred use among young people, noting products like alcohol and tobacco are legally available with restrictions.
Once passed, the Liberal bills introduced today would make Canada the first member of the G7 to legalize marijuana for recreational use across the country.
The bills include measures to address issues surrounding the new legal landscape, including limits for legal possession, age restrictions for retailers, marketing rules and tougher penalties for selling to minors and impaired driving.
Sources tell The Canadian Press the bills also include rules requiring producers to sell their marijuana in plain packaging, similar to restrictions the federal government is trying to impose on tobacco manufacturers.
Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi said earlier today he expected to see fairly detailed legislation that's going to take time to unpack, particularly when it comes to the impact on provincial governments, where issues like distribution and enforcement are front and centre.
“This is quite a large undertaking,” said Naqvi.
“I think last time we legalized a product that was not legal was the end of prohibition in the 1930s,” he added.
Last year, Ontario established a cannabis legalization secretariat—part of an effort to explore various options the federal legislation could present to prevent having to start from scratch once the bill is unveiled.
“We want to make sure that we are protecting the vulnerable and the youth, that we are promoting public health and road safety and that we are focusing on prevention and harm reduction,” Naqvi said.
“This is also multi-ministerial work because there are several ministries that are impacted.”
The federal government is also waiting on the result of a pilot project that's been underway in a number of Canadian cities, exploring new technology for a more effective roadside test for enforcing impaired-driving rules.
Philpott declined this week to confirm nor deny that the new bill would require plain packaging, or to disclose any other details prior to the legislation's public release.
A number of prominent producers, however, have been aggressively lobbying the government against the notion of plain packaging.
Seven companies—Tilray, Tweed, Mettrum, CannTrust, Green Organic Dutchman Holdings, RedeCan Pharm and Delta 9 Bio-Tech—wrote to Philpott, other ministers on the pot file and the prime minister to warn about the potential consequences.
“Without branding and in-store marketing collateral, it will be difficult to educate consumers about the products they are buying and help them differentiate between products,” they wrote.
“Brands also ensure accountability, encouraging producers and retailers to provide quality products and support in the new market.”
Members of the medical community will also be watching to see if Ottawa proceeds with a recommendation to limit sales to those 18 and over—something Trudeau seemed to endorse last year when he described it as a reasonable compromise.
The Prime Minister's Office declined to say if he still feels that way, saying only it would “legalize, strictly regulate and restrict access” to cannabis in a careful way to keep it out of the hands of young people and to prevent criminals from profiting.
For its part, the Canadian Psychiatric Association has warned about the mental health implications of cannabis for young people, and recommended an age limit of 21, as well as quantity and potency limits for those under 25.
Early and regular cannabis use can affect memory, attention, intelligence and the ability to process thoughts, said CPA President Dr. Renuka Prasad, and exacerbate the risk of psychotic disorders and other mental health issues among those already vulnerable.
The driving purpose of the Liberal government's plan is to address Canada's “very high rates” of cannabis use among young people that are among the highest rates in the world, Philpott said.
Criminalizing cannabis has not deterred its use by young people, she added, noting other products including alcohol and tobacco are available with restrictions for legal consumption despite known harms.
Marijuana is a perfect example of the look-before-leaping approach the Liberals took to their 2015 campaign promises, Conservative MP and leadership candidate Erin O'Toole said in an interview yesterday.
O'Toole is siding firmly with those provinces who want the federal government to pick up the tab for additional law enforcement costs sure to result from the new landscape.