The Liberal government is sending further signals it plans a strict regime for recreational marijuana by hiring former public safety minister Anne McLellan to develop plans to legalize the drug.
Sources confirmed that Ms. McLellan will head a federal-provincial task force that will report to Bill Blair, the Liberal MP and parliamentary secretary for justice who is in charge of the file. Mr. Blair, a former Toronto police chief, has denounced the growing number of unregulated pot dispensaries across the country.
The task force, which has yet to be announced formally, will be asked to report later this year, with legislation to legalize marijuana to be tabled in the House in the spring of 2017.
Ms. McLellan has a lot of experience dealing with marijuana issues in Ottawa. Having been minister of public safety, health and justice in the Liberal governments of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, she was involved in both the fight against trafficking by organized crime, and in responding to court rulings that ordered the government to provide access to marijuana for medical use.
In those days, Ms. McLellan was widely seen as being right of centre in the Liberal Party.
The current minister of Public Safety, Ralph Goodale, said the goal is to develop a regime for selling recreational pot that does a better job than the current situation at keeping the drug away from young people.
"We want a system of strict regulation and restrictions and taxation that will keep marijuana more effectively out of the hands of our kids and stop that flow of illegal cash into the hands of organized crime," Mr. Goodale said after appearing at the public safety committee of the House on Thursday.
"The present arrangement, for all of the strong language about the war on drugs, has obviously failed," he added.
Ms. McLellan said in 2002, as the minister of health, that she felt "a certain degree of discomfort" around the issue of medical marijuana.
She said "the courts took us down a certain path," arguing it was not her government's choice to allow the use of cannabis for medical purposes.
Brent Zettl, whose Prairie Plant Systems Inc. was the first company licensed by Ottawa to grow medical marijuana after those court decisions, said that Ms. McLellan was always most concerned with the safety and security of the system.
"She is very, very rules-oriented and very cognizant of the law and very cognizant of safety," said Mr. Zettl, who has grown marijuana under one federal system or another for the past 15 years.
Liberal MP Nate Erskine-Smith called Ms. McLellan a "very reasonable person" whose views on cannabis have likely evolved over the past decade or so, like those of most Canadians.
"Canada's come a long way … on the topic from the medical cannabis side, but obviously Canadians across the country want to move away from prohibition towards a regulatory environment," said Mr. Erskine-Smith, whose Toronto constituency office neighbours an illegal dispensary that was among 45 raided by police last month. "Both for public safety reasons and health reasons and also to treat Canadians like the responsible adults we are."
Ms. McLellan refused an interview request on Thursday to give her current views on marijuana, but she is expected to speak publicly once the government confirms her appointment. She is a lawyer in Edmonton and the chancellor of Dalhousie University.
Provincial politicians want pot to be sold through liquor stores or pharmacies – not dispensaries – once recreational use is written into law next spring. Regardless of where it is eventually distributed, the City of Vancouver and several other West Coast communities have crafted bylaws they say can guide face-to-face sales.
In a speech last month, Mr. Blair made it clear he feels that unlicensed pot dispensaries are breaking the law by bypassing federal regulations to serve the medical marijuana market.
"The current licensed producers are competing with people who don't care about the law, who don't care about regulations, don't care about kids, they don't care about communities, don't care about health of Canadians. They're pretty reckless about it. And so they're selling anything to make a fast buck before we get the regulations put in place," Mr. Blair said.