Stating that 94 years of prohibition were an "abject failure," the federal government has tabled long-awaited legislation to legalize marijuana for adult Canadians at the same time as toughening up the Criminal Code to crack down on dealers targeting minors and those getting behind the wheel while high.
The historic legislation would lift the prohibition on the recreational use of cannabis that goes back to 1923, positioning Canada as a leading country on the relaxation of illicit-drug laws. If adopted as planned by the summer of 2018, Canada will become the first G7 country – and the second in the world after Uruguay – in which cannabis use is legal across the land.
Still, the Trudeau government is pitching its plan as highly restrictive, designed for the sole purpose of reducing the role of criminal organizations in the marijuana market and limiting the availability of the drug to youth.
The legislative package includes one bill that would create a new federal-provincial regime to produce and sell cannabis, and another one to overhaul and strengthen the laws related to impaired driving by users of both marijuana and alcohol.
Bill C-45 and Bill C-46 would also create a series of new criminal offences, punishing those who provide cannabis to youth with up to 14 years in jail and allowing for roadside saliva testing to detect drug-impaired drivers. Drivers with a small amount of THC in their blood would face a fine of up to $1,000, while those with high levels (or those who also have alcohol in their blood) would face up to 10 years in jail.
Liberal MP Bill Blair, the former police chief who has been the government's point man on the file, acknowledged there is "not an absolute guarantee" that marijuana would disappear from the hands of young Canadians.
Still, he said the government was creating a system in which all legal producers would be licensed by Health Canada, and all legal cannabis would be distributed through provincially regulated outlets.
"Today, the decision to sell or not to sell to that child is often being made by a gangster in a stairwell," he said at a news conference. "That is completely unacceptable to us and that will be subject to serious criminal sanction."
As was expected, the legislation would allow all Canadians over the age of 18 (or older depending on the provinces) to buy marijuana by mail and in provincially regulated retail spaces, or to grow up to four plants at home. The possession limit of dried cannabis would be set at 30 grams, while edible cannabis products would be legalized at a later date.
The legislation will eventually be completed by a series of rules and regulations, which means there are still unanswered questions on issues such as the future price of marijuana, packaging and marketing rules, and taxation levels.
Across the country, provincial politicians said many details surrounding the distribution and sale of cannabis will have to be worked out with municipalities, with most saying any tax revenue generated from the new industry should go toward mitigating the negative public health and safety effects brought on by the new laws.
Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa, whose province houses the majority of Canada's licensed medical-cannabis producers, said it remains unclear as to whether provincial-government coffers will receive any additional funds after legalization. As he prepares to table a balanced budget on April 27, Mr. Sousa said he has not budgeted for any extra money from marijuana sales and any proceeds would be earmarked for spending on health and addiction services.
In B.C., home to Canada's largest black market for the production and sale of cannabis, Premier Christy Clark echoed this statement, noting the extra money should also go toward law enforcement. She added that a panel of B.C. experts will help determine where best to sell the drug. Several B.C. communities have followed in Vancouver's footsteps to begin crafting bylaws licensing storefront dispensaries, which are illegal under current laws but have exploded to more than a hundred locations across the province.
Alberta's Minister of Justice and Solicitor-General Kathleen Ganley told reporters Thursday that her government hopes to start provincewide public consultations this summer to gauge which minimum age is acceptable and where people prefer the drug be sold. Ms. Ganley said her province likely won't support the sale of cannabis next to alcohol, which was a key public-health recommendation made by the federal task force that guided the new law.
A spokesperson for the Government of Saskatchewan praised the bill's zero-tolerance approach to cannabis-impaired driving, but stated the province wants to see federal funding to train more police officers on how to recognize when someone is under the influence of the drug.
Quebec Public Health Minister Lucie Charlebois said her province has no choice but to implement the changes and hopes ending prohibition of the drug will help better prevent its associated harms.
Mr. Blair, the former police chief of Toronto, said Canada is not moving in the same direction as the handful of U.S. states that legalized marijuana in an attempt to "maximize revenue."
"It is not our intent to promote the use of this drug," he said. "In every other jurisdiction that has gone down the road of legalization, they focused primarily on a commercial regulatory framework. In Canada … it's a public-health framework."
At this point, there are 42 companies that have the necessary authorizations from Health Canada to produce marijuana for medical purposes across the country.
A federal official said the current holders of licences will have a head start once the market is opened up to recreational users, while saying staff and resources will be added at Health Canada to speed up the approval process for new producers.
Federal Conservative finance critic Gérard Deltell said the announcement was a "sad day for Canada" because the changes will eventually expose more youth to the risks of marijuana. The NDP said the proposal was a "step in the right direction," while complaining the government was moving too slowly to put an end to a system in which ordinary Canadians are still being charged with pot possession.
Still, the Liberals insist they have found the right balance between a "free-for-all" regime and the existing system, under which Canadian teenagers rank among the heaviest users of cannabis in the world.
"If your objective is to protect public health and safety, and keep cannabis out of the hands of minors, and stop the flow of illegal profits to organized crime, then the law as it stands today has been an abject failure," Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said.
Mr. Goodale was unable to provide assurances that Canadians will not encounter problems at the U.S. border if they acknowledge legally smoking marijuana. Still, he said Canada will raise the issue with the United States if a pattern of denied entries arises after legalization.
Federal ministers reiterated on Thursday that marijuana remains illegal across Canada, except for medical purposes, until the legislation comes into force.
Key details in the legislation
- Sales to be restricted to people age 18 and older, but provinces could increase the minimum age.
- New fines or jail time for anyone who sells cannabis to youth or creates products appealing to youth.
- Adults could publicly possess up to 30 grams of dried cannabis.
- Sales by mail would be allowed in provinces that lack a regulated retail system.
- Adults could grow up to four cannabis plants.
- Adults could produce legal cannabis products, such as food or drinks, for personal use at home.
- At first, sales will entail only fresh and dried cannabis, cannabis oils and seeds and plants for cultivation.
- Possession, production and distribution outside the legal system would remain illegal.
- The existing program for access to medical marijuana would continue as it currently exists.
With reports from Justine Hunter and Justin Giovannetti