The Trudeau government has put itself and many Canadians in a bind with the announcement that it will legalize marijuana by July of next year.
On the one hand, Canada has made it clear that the war on this particular drug is over – a decision based on pot's popularity and ready availability in this country, and in the knowledge that criminalizing its sale and possession for personal use is more harmful, on balance, than allowing its consumption in a tightly regulated market.
But on the other hand, Canada intends to continue in the interim to make it a crime to have pot in your possession, except for medical reasons. Having identified the harm of criminalization as justification for a sweeping reform, the government has committed itself to at least 15 more months of perpetuating this very same harm.
That leaves the estimated 2.3-million Canadians who use pot in a limbo in which the use of the drug has essentially been normalized by the government, but the possession of which, at least until next summer, could still see them slapped with a criminal charge for walking around with a joint in their pocket.
Some might say tough luck. The law is the law; don't break it.
That's certainly the position we take with regard to the illegal dispensaries that have popped up in Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto and other cities. The transition from an illegal, underground marketplace to one in which licensed producers will soon provide legal marijuana to licensed and supervised sellers should not be short-circuited by the greed of those who are breaking the law and jumping the gun, creating headaches for police departments and municipal councils. Tough luck, indeed.
Besides, there is no viable interim regulatory regime that could accommodate a quasi-legal retail market. But there is when it comes to personal possession. It's called decriminalization.
That is something many police chiefs have been calling for for years. They would love to be able to ticket someone caught with a small amount of pot that they intend to use for personal consumption, instead of having to arrest them and lay criminal charges.
Decriminalization would immediately unburden the already overburdened criminal justice system, by removing the tens of thousands of minor pot charges that occur in Canada every year. It would also spare people from a possible criminal record for an offence that the majority of Canadians do not see as meriting such a heavy hand – a conclusion some have reached partly because Ottawa has successfully argued that criminalizing pot possession is more harmful than helpful to society.
What decriminalization would not do is create an illegal and dangerous free-for-all, as illegal pot dispensaries have done. People who consume and carry small amounts of marijuana during the interim period might still face sanction – perhaps even more so, since police, freed from the time-consuming burden of arresting, booking and participating in the prosecution of suspected pot smokers, might choose to focus on the easier job of writing tickets. Or, police might choose to ignore pot smokers altogether.
Ottawa could well bring in an interim regime involving decriminalization, but so far it has insisted that nothing will change in the months ahead. It is legalization or nothing for the Liberals.
Which doesn't make sense, at least not from a technical standpoint. There is every likelihood that decriminalizing the possession of personal amounts of pot, while maintaining the crime of getting caught with large stashes that are clearly meant for trafficking – like the kinds found in an illegal dispensary – could be achieved fairly easily.
The Liberals' reluctance to demonstrate any sort of interim mercy is most likely the product of their desire to reinforce the point that the legalization of marijuana does not mean that it can be produced and sold by anyone who wants, or will be suddenly even more available to people under 18.
They have hammered home their message that pot will be legally available in Canada only inside a restrictive framework that favours large companies shipping safely produced weed to provincially overseen retailers that may look more like an Ontario liquor store than a chic boutique dispensary.
To its credit, Ottawa has effectively persuaded Canadians that the chief harms of criminalization – which includes the damage done by criminal records given to otherwise law-abiding citizens – are worse than the harms of legalization.
But having done the math, both social and political, it now insists that all the harms of criminalization will continue for the foreseeable future, even though it could immediately end the one that most directly hurts the most Canadians. In focusing so much on its calculations, it has lost track of some basic common sense.