The Canadian government is giving itself until late 2018 or early 2019 to open up the market for recreational marijuana, based on a road map that will allow everyone over 18 to purchase pot from a variety of producers and retailers or to grow their own.
In a report released on Tuesday, a task force chaired by former Liberal minister Anne McLellan provided 80 recommendations to end the prohibition on marijuana that dates back to 1923, using a model similar to the one in place for sales of tobacco and alcohol.
The report said Canadians should be able to buy or carry 30 grams of marijuana for personal use, while those who want to grow their own could have four plants at home. The system would feature storefront sales and mail-order distribution, and allow a wide diversity of producers to operate legally, including "craft" growers and the current producers of medical marijuana.
A senior federal official said the report has been well received inside the government and will have a large influence on the upcoming legislation to legalize marijuana, which will be tabled in Parliament in the spring of 2017.
Still, the official explained that opening up the legal market will depend on the "readiness of the provinces," which will be in charge of regulating the wholesale distribution and retailing of cannabis. As such, the official said that implementing the new regime in 2018 would be an ambitious target, given the complexity of the task, with 2019 being more likely.
The task force received positive feedback from opposite spectrums of Canada's cannabis industry, from the regulated producers that supply the medical market to the country's self-styled "prince of pot," Marc Emery, who said he was surprised to find he was in agreement with Ms. McLellan.
Kirk Tousaw, a Vancouver lawyer with many clients in the marijuana industry, said the task force has come up with a practical approach that goes against various calls for strict and hard-to-enforce regulations.
"By and large, the task force did an excellent job of coming up with recommendations based on evidence, as opposed to myth and stigma," he said in an interview.
At a news conference, Ms. McLellan said the current system that criminalizes the consumption of marijuana is simply not working and needs to be updated.
"As a matter of public policy, now is the time to move away from a system that for decades has been based on prohibition of cannabis, into a regulated and legal market," Ms. McLellan said.
But she refused to advocate an immediate amnesty for pot possession or a temporary decriminalization. Until the law is changed, she said, current laws "should be enforced."
One of the thorniest issues that faced the task force was coming up with the minimum age for Canadians to use marijuana recreationally. The task force's vice-chair, Dr. Mark Ware, said 18 seemed like a "decent balance," even though some public health officials had advocated the age of 25.
"Canadian adults can make decisions," Dr. Ware said. "Age, to some extent, is a line in the sand. What matters is how we teach parents, children, the public about what the potential risks of cannabis use."
Regarding the issue of impaired driving, Ms. McLellan said the best solution is to give researchers additional time to develop proper detection tools.
"This is not going to be a new challenge that is created by legalization. Drug-impaired driving is a problem, or a challenge, in Canada today," Ms. McLellan said.
Still, the Canadian Automobile Association said Ottawa needs to launch public education campaigns and provide greater funding to law-enforcement authorities to get ready for the new regime.
"It's clear from the report that work needs to start immediately in these areas, and that the actual legalization should not be rushed," CAA vice-president Jeff Walker said.
According to the task force, the production of marijuana for recreational purposes should follow the system that is currently in use for medical marijuana, which is overseen and heavily regulated by Health Canada.
In addition, the task force urged the federal government to allow "artisanal" and outdoor production under strict security conditions.
"Our goal is a diversity of producers," Ms. McLellan said. "We would hope that at least some of [the current illegal producers] will wish to come in the new legal regime."
A number of publicly listed licensed producers of medical marijuana saw their stocks surge after the release of the report. The association that represents a majority of these producers applauded the task force's proposals.
"It's a very thoughtful approach," said Colette Rivet, the executive director of Cannabis Canada Association. "If we keep the new system open to small companies and larger companies, keep it competitive, we're going to keep the price down and keep people out of the black market."
In the House of Commons, however, the Conservative Party slammed the government for moving toward the legalization of home-grown marijuana, stating it would provide children with easy access to pot.
Recreational marijuana would be sold under a provincially regulated system that would ensure that the drug is not distributed in the same locations as alcohol, with the report urging provinces to establish "limits on the density and location of storefronts."
The report added that provinces where the legal drinking age is 19 could impose the same limit for the consumption of recreational marijuana.
The task force did not estimate the amount of tax revenue that will be generated by the sale of recreational marijuana. Still, the group recommended that high-potency products be more heavily taxed, to "discourage" their use by the general public.
In order to minimize risks to public health, the task force is urging "comprehensive restrictions to the advertising and promotion of cannabis and related merchandise," including a requirement to sell the product in child-proof, plain packaging.
On the issue of edible marijuana products, the task force is advocating a number of conditions, including ensuring they are not marketed toward children, for example by prohibiting candies and colourful packaging. In addition, the government is being urged to ban products in which marijuana is mixed with alcohol or caffeine.
In order to ensure the public's safety, the report said that the following activities should remain criminal: trafficking to youth, illicit production, trafficking and import/export of marijuana. In addition, the report calls on all levels of government to "send a clear message to Canadians that cannabis causes impairment and that the best way to avoid driving impaired is to not consume."
With a report from Mike Hager in Vancouver