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Has The Head of Canada's Legalization Task Force Turned Over A New Leaf?

During her time in government, Anne McLellan dragged her heels on cannabis reform legislation. Now she's officially in charge of the task force that will help the Trudeau government hit its 2017 deadline for legalization.

On June 30, government ministers introduced McLellan and the rest of the task force that will consult with provinces, territories and experts in order to develop the legalization framework.

McLellan - who will chair the task force - is a former Liberal MP (1993-2006) who served as Justice Minister (1997-2002), Health Minister (2002-2003) and Minister of Public Safety (2003-2006). Those three portfolios just so happen to be the same ones that Trudeau has picked to coordinate the logistics of reforming Canada's marijuana laws.

"I am pleased to have been offered the opportunity to chair the task force on marijuana legalization and regulation," McLellan said at the press conference. "Given my past experience, I do have an appreciation for the complexity of the task before me and my fellow task force members."

In a pair of Twitter posts, Buzzfeed political editor Paul McLeod conveyed the sense of a news conference with no real news value:

But since this is the group's first official day on the job, McLellan obviously couldn't offer many specifics on what their final recommendations will look like. Nor was she expected to do something dramatic or unexpected, like announce that that government would decriminalize marijuana as an interim step toward legalization. But she did indicate how her team would handle consultations about cannabis.

"Over the coming months, the task force members and I will be speaking to provincial, territorial and municipal governments," she said. "We will also consult with indigenous governments and representative organizations. Equally important will be our engagement with youth and with experts in relevant fields such as health care, substance abuse, criminal justice, law enforcement, economics, industry and those groups with expertise in [marijuana] sales, production and distribution."

And the task force also wants to hear from regular Canadians.

"Not only will it be important for the task force to engage directly with experts and others, it will also be important to hear from Canadians via our online consultations which launch today," she said. "I strongly encourage all interested Canadians to participate in this online process. The task force members and I look forward to the challenges ahead of us. And we look forward to working together to provide thoughtful, well-informed advice for the design of a new legislative and regulatory framework."

The rest of her team is comprised of Vice-Chair Mark Ware and members Susan Boyd, George Chow, Marlene Jesso, Perry Kendall, Rafik Souccar, Barbara von Tigerstrom and Catherine Zahn (more to come on them in a future piece).

At the press conference, Bill Blair - Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice - says the task force will submit their final recommendations to the government in November of this year. He added that their findings will be made public.

McLellan's legacy of stalled legislation

This isn't the first time McLellan has been tasked with reforming Canada's marijuana laws. In the 1990s, activists called on her to decriminalize marijuana for medical use. And in 1998, she was accused in the House of shirking her duty by dragging her feet on the issue. She deflected criticism by insisting that she needed time to give the issue serious consideration.

But the government didn't act until two years later, when their hand was forced by a ruling in the Ontario Court of Appeal that invalidated the prohibition of medical marijuana. McLellan didn't challenge the court's ruling, but she did refuse to supply marijuana to approved patients. She argued that the government should not be involved in dispensing cannabis until clinical trials could prove the drug was safe.

Under the medical marijuana regulations implemented during McLellan's tenure as Health Minister, patients had to grow their own medicine, have someone grow it for them or resort to the black market.

McLellan similarly dragged her feet on decriminalizing simple possession of marijuana for recreational use. When the Association of Canadian Police Chiefs called for decriminalization in 1999, McLellan said she would consider the issue. But there was little movement on the file until 2001, when Parliament passed a motion to create a committee to study decriminalizing recreational use of "soft drugs."

But, again, Parliament didn't act until compelled by a court ruling. In 2003, Ontario Court Justice Douglas Phillips ruled that the laws criminalizing simple possession of marijuana were invalid. The federal government responded by drafting two bills to decriminalize cannabis, but both died in the House. And plans to reform the laws were set aside when Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper became Prime Minister in 2006.

Turning a new leaf

But McLellan says that she's changed her mind about marijuana. In the decade following her departure form public office, she's come to the conclusion that legalization is the best way to control cannabis.

"I think a lot has changed over the past decade," she said at the June 30th press conference. "So many people have come to the conclusion, for a number of reasons, that the current situation is not working. And we need a better way forward. And I have myself concluded that legalization with a regulatory regime such as the task force will be exploring is the way forward."

Banner image: Robert Park /


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