Drugs – legal and illegal – have so come to dominate the conversation among federal, provincial and territorial ministers of health that perhaps we should start calling them ministers of drugs?
At their most recent meeting, held last week in Edmonton, they discussed the following issues: legalization of cannabis, opioids and the overdose crisis, pharmacare, mental health and addiction, tobacco control, and antimicrobial resistance as a result of overuse of antibiotics.
Each of those issues is pressing for different reasons, but let's focus on the one with a hard deadline for action: cannabis.
On July 1, 2018, it will be legal for Canadians to purchase and possess some cannabis products.
But there are many, many practical issues to resolve before that time: Where will marijuana be sold? At what price? What will be the legal limit for possession? Will you be able to grow your own? What will be the minimum age for purchasing pot? Where can it be smoked? Will there be cannabis lounges? What are the labelling requirements? How will it be taxed? How will the tax revenues be distributed? How will we prevent drugged driving? How will we regulate impairment on the job to ensure workplace safety? What kind of public health campaigns will be undertaken to minimize harm? Will there be different rules for recreational cannabis and medical cannabis? What happens if provincial rules aren't in place by the time the federal Cannabis Act takes effect next Canada Day?
The last question is, unfortunately, necessary because most provinces and territories have spent a lot more time and energy complaining about the so-called tight deadline than actually formulating policies.
There is no excuse for the dithering. The federal Liberals campaigned on an explicit promise to legalize marijuana. Then, in mandate letters to his ministers in late 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the legalization and regulation of marijuana would occur during the government's mandate, i.e., before 2019.
Finally, in April, Bill C-45, the Cannabis Act, was tabled in Parliament and, at 144 pages, it's thorough.
Ottawa made clear its intentions and followed through. As shocking as that may be in modern politics, it remains that the provinces and territories have no possible excuse for claiming they didn't know what was coming down the pipe.
Yet, to date, only three provinces, Ontario, New Brunswick and Alberta, have issued semi-detailed plans.
Ontario's approach – selling cannabis in sterile, state-run stores overseen by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario and vowing to shut down ubiquitous dispensaries – has been greeted with a lot of groans, but at least it's taking some leadership.
New Brunswick has taken a similar approach, saying marijuana sales will be overseen by a Crown corporation, and naming the two distributors from which the province will purchase its supply, but not much else.
Alberta's framework is the most detailed to date. Possession will be limited to 30 grams and individuals will be able to grow up to four marijuana plants. But it's wavering on whether cannabis will be sold in state-run or private stores, saying it is awaiting public consultation.
Other provinces are all hiding behind the "we need to consult" excuse, but there isn't much needed. Legalization will be a fact in nine months, and provinces have to make decisions, most of them of a fairly technical nature. We don't need public debates of whether 25 or 30 grams is the right number, or whether you can grow your pot plants outdoors or not. We just need clear, explicit rules.
More than anything else, Alberta's announcement highlighted that the rules could vary considerably between provinces. For example, it says the rules for where cannabis can be smoked will be the same as for cigarettes or e-cigarettes, and is considering licensing cannabis lounges. Ontario, for its part, says cannabis can only be smoked in private residences.
What Ottawa should be doing is encouraging the provinces and territories to have as much uniformity as possible, particularly on key issues such as pricing.
If legalization is going to be successful – and remember, the goal is two-fold: minimize the harm to young people and recoup revenues from organized crime – then the price of legal pot has to be competitively priced and of good quality.
Provincial and territorial governments need to act on cannabis, and swiftly. They can't continue to bogart the process and harsh everyone's buzz.