Ottawa's march toward a controlled market for legal marijuana in Canada takes a major step forward this week with the delivery of a task force report that includes advice on a minimum age, product warnings and measures to prevent drug-impaired driving.
The report on pot legalization will be delivered to cabinet by Wednesday, said task force chair Anne McLellan, a lawyer and former federal cabinet minister in the Chrétien and Martin governments.
Ms. McLellan said her nine-person group – which has received 30,000 online submissions and visited U.S. states with experience in the legalization process – has authored a responsible, fair and balanced report that will "engender a lot of interest."
Speaking on the sidelines of a Bennett Jones LLP business forum last week, Ms. McLellan said it's hard to understate how significant a psychological shift will be required as law enforcement, governments and Canadians as a whole adapt to marijuana legalization – a key policy plank of the federal Liberal government.
Right now, production and possession of marijuana is illegal unless it has been authorized for medical purposes, but the government estimates the illegal marijuana industry's size at $7-billion, annually.
Ottawa has committed to introducing legislation in the spring that will move marijuana "from a criminal regime, where this was an illegal substance with criminal sanctions – some of them very serious – to a legalized product in a regulated marketplace," Ms. McLellan said. It's important to move slowly, and deliberately, in implementation, she added.
"Most Canadians think it's time to move away from the system we have. But they are less clear about words like 'decriminalization' and 'legalization.'"
The report will be made public "in due course," Ms. McLellan said. She said the task force – which was asked to provide advice for keeping the drug out of the hands of children and youth – will recommend a minimum age for marijuana purchases.
In the interest of healthy brain development, the Canadian Medical Association has said that pot sales should be limited to those 21 and older, and that restrictions on the potency of marijuana should be in place for all Canadians younger than 25.
However, others have argued that is unrealistic because pot use among Canadians 15 to 24 years old is already double that of the general population.
"The legal age should reflect the ability of an individual to make an informed decision rather than evaluating the relative safety of use," argued the group Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy.
"Setting a lower age limit may help prevent the continuation of an underground cannabis market and reduce the associated harms on youth."
Ms. McLellan, who served in the justice and health portfolios among others, also said the task force report will address marijuana labelling and warnings, and said it's an area in which "the federal government has a lot of experience based on their tobacco regime."
Special attention will be paid to the issue of drug-impaired driving, she said.
The task force was also asked to address issues such as where marijuana will be sold, how to keep profits out of the hands of organized crime and how to continue access to quality-controlled marijuana for medical use.
Patient groups, in presentations to the task force, have made the case that the drug needs to be affordable, through means such as dropping the sales taxes or by encouraging medical insurers to cover the drug.
Ms. McLellan notes the task force had calls with officials from Uruguay, which in 2013 became the first country in the world to legalize marijuana sales. Some task force members travelled to Colorado, while others went to Washington – U.S. states that have also had legal pot markets for three years. Earlier this month, voters in California, Massachusetts and Nevada passed measures to legalize recreational marijuana – joining Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C.
"Canadians who have been following this area would see that in the United States – where cannabis is still illegal federally – that there will probably be a tipping point where the government of the United States will have to take a look at their ongoing regime of illegality," Ms. McLellan said.
"That's not for me to say," she added. "But you do see a certain trend."
In its assessment of "affiliations and interests" of task force members, Health Canada noted Ms. McLellan has been a senior adviser with Bennett Jones for a decade, and the law firm represents some clients with interests in the legal marijuana business.