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Politics Bill Blair faces ‘formidable challenge’ in leading marijuana task force

Liberal candidate and former Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair gesture during an interview June 17, 2015 in Ottawa.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The Trudeau government is calling on former police chief Bill Blair to find the best way to legalize marijuana in Canada, relying on the rookie Liberal MP's law-enforcement credentials to sell the controversial policy to the public.

Federal officials said Mr. Blair is expected to work with a new federal-provincial task force to develop a regime in which marijuana is available to all adults across the country, with the two levels of government reaping applicable sales taxes.

In his new role, the former chief of the Toronto Police Service will be expected to find a consensus in favour of the major shift in the way that marijuana is handled by the country's justice system.

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His former colleagues at the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police said they remain concerned by issues such as access to the drug by young Canadians, and the potential for an increase in impaired driving.

"Mr. Blair has a formidable challenge in front of him," said Clive Weighill, chief of the Saskatoon Police Service and president of the CACP. "We in policing have a role to play, as do many others. We will work with the government in a positive and collaborative manner to help mitigate public safety impacts."

Carleton University professor Frances Woolley said the government's policy will have to allow adults to enjoy recreational marijuana, while reducing the harm related to dependency, poor-quality products and the use by young adults. At the same time, the professor of economics said the federal and provincial governments need to have access to higher tax revenues, while finding ways to reduce policing costs.

"There are inevitable tensions between these goals: Harm reduction potentially conflicts with revenue maximization, for example," she said. "What I would hope the task force to accomplish is to steer a path that gets us as close as we can to achieving these three objectives."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has driven the Liberal Party away from the simpler policy of decriminalizing marijuana – which would keep the product illegal but lower penalties for possession – toward the more radical promise of legalization.

For the October election, the Liberal platform promised that the federal-provincial task force would create a "new system of strict marijuana sales and distribution, with appropriate federal and provincial excise taxes applied."

Officially, the lead ministers on the file are Jody Wilson-Raybould at Justice, Ralph Goodale at Public Safety and Jane Philpott at Health. Still, Mr. Blair, as the parliamentary secretary for Ms. Wilson-Raybould, has been given a lead role on this specific file, to free up the ministers to focus on other issues.

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"[Mr.] Blair's experience and background in public safety will be a great asset to the government's work to ensure a careful and thoughtful approach to the legalization and regulation of marijuana," Ms. Wilson-Raybould's spokesman said in a statement.

During the election campaign, Mr. Blair played a key role in defending the Liberal Party's credentials on law-and-order issues.

"We've already had a great deal of experience with controlling the sale and use of alcohol. We believe that we can build upon that model and we can ensure our communities could be made safer through regulation and legalization," Mr. Blair told CTV News in October.

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