The federal government is moving toward a restrictive market for recreational marijuana, vowing to impose potency limits, controls on advertising, and strict rules over the production and sale of the drug.
Ottawa has unveiled a nine-member panel to draw up Canada's new marijuana framework, sending out the clearest signal to date that it is not bowing to the demands of members of the illegal pot industry that has boomed in recent months.
A number of producers and users of marijuana are advocating a liberalized regime, but Ottawa says it will continue to treat marijuana as a dangerous drug, especially for young Canadians and frequent users.
There will be no amnesty for current pot users, and the government promised to continue to support the crackdown on illegal dispensaries in cities around the country.
"It is not like tomatoes; [marijuana] is a substance that poses certain significant social and health harms and risks to Canadians, and we want to make sure that we mitigate those risks," said Liberal MP Bill Blair, the former Toronto police chief who will oversee the work of the task force.
The task force will be chaired by former Liberal cabinet minister Anne McLellan, and include experts from the fields of medicine, law enforcement and substance abuse. The group is to propose a series of rules to the government by the end of the year, leading to the introduction of legislation to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes by the spring of 2017.
"I think their attitude is wrong-headed," said Vancouver cannabis activist Dana Larsen.
Mr. Larsen said he favours a system that would be similar, or even more liberal, than the one currently governing alcohol production – including home brewing – in Canada.
"Otherwise it's only prohibition, but with a different dealer," he said.
Toronto Mayor John Tory welcomed the "clarity" of the government's announcement.
"The law is the law until it's changed, or until a court rules otherwise," Mr. Tory told reporters. "I don't think the view of the people has changed in light of any of this, which is that they don't want marijuana dispensaries on every street corner or on every retail strip."
Mr. Tory said those who want to sell marijuana should be patient and wait for the law to change. In May, Toronto police and city bylaw officials targeted 43 pot dispensaries in one day, handcuffing staff and charging 90 people with drug offences or zoning bylaw violations that carry $25,000 fines. Four more dispensaries were raided last week, and 23 people were arrested.
In a discussion paper released by Ottawa on Thursday, the government called for a minimum age – in the range of 18 to 25 – to limit the opportunity for young Canadians to buy marijuana. The government also said there could be limits on the percentage of THC in cannabis products, and that "high-potency products [could be] strictly prohibited."
The government is also eyeing restrictions on the sale of edible pot products, and has determined the need to "prevent commercialization through advertising controls."
The paper extolls the virtues of the existing system of heavily regulated, security-heavy facilities that legally serve Canada's medical marijuana market in its discussion of pot for the recreational market, and also states that home cultivation would likely not be in the public interest for large-scale production of recreational marijuana.
One of the questions that the task force will be addressing is: "To what extent, if any, should home cultivation be allowed in a legalized system?"
Health Minister Jane Philpott told a news conference that the government has already narrowed down many of the issues that will be examined by the task force.
"We're not starting from ground zero," she said, adding that federal officials have already studied places such as Colorado and Washington State where marijuana has been legalized.
Vancouver Councillor Kerry Jang, whose city is the first in Canada to create a set of bylaws regulating the sector, said establishing the task force was an important step.
"We've got to find out where Canadians agree, overall, on the whole issue of marijuana," he said. "Get some nationally agreed-upon principles in order for some sort of legislation to be created. It's clear that there's a place for marijuana in Canadian society and I encourage everybody to get out there and talk to the task force."
The Vancouver Police Department has said investigations into pot shops require immense resources. After most of the force's 11 recent raids, the dispensaries reopened the next day. When asked Thursday about the government's support for enforcement against marijuana operations, a Vancouver police spokesperson said the department will "continue to take a priority-based approach in enforcing the laws in relation to marijuana offences."
With reports from Jeff Gray in Toronto and Sunny Dhillon in Vancouver