Cannabis may be mere weeks away from legalization in Canada, but according to former cannabis task-force chair Anne McLellan, that doesn’t mean it’s party time.

While legalization is getting many Canadians excited — or clutching their pearls, as the case may be — the chair of Canada’s task force on cannabis legalization says many are missing the two other points Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government have stressed on this front: restriction and regulation.

McLellan urges consumers and those in the cannabis industry to follow the rules carefully. Otherwise, they could not only get themselves into trouble but also jeopardize legalization itself.

“Don’t underestimate that if this goes bad —  if people play fast and loose with the rules — there could be enormous societal pushback,” she said Monday as the keynote speaker at the World Cannabis Congress in Saint John, New Brunswick. “Everybody had better be on their best behaviour for the first few years after legalization, because there is a fragility to this.”

And that fragility could turn into catastrophe for the industry if the government is forced to pull the plug on legalization. 

“Like them or not, you have to play by the rules or else things can go bad, really fast...Governments respond to political pressure,” McLellan warned.

'Anyone who thinks it was out to popularize or glamorize cannabis use was sorely mistaken'

McLellan knows exactly what that political pressure looks like: She’s served in the cabinets of former Prime Ministers Chrétien and Paul Martin. And she was the last person to hold the title Deputy Prime Minister. The task force’s job, she said, was to come up with a framework to address public health and safety concerns surrounding legalization. She stressed that anyone who thinks it was out to popularize or glamorize cannabis use was sorely mistaken, as evidenced by the almost notoriously sad packaging.

“If anybody expected to see Snoop Dogg on a package, welcome to Canada. This is as glamorous as it gets,” she said while displaying images of the sterile packages that cannabis will be sold in.

Most Canadians, McLellan pointed out, don’t use cannabis either recreationally or medicinally, and generally haven’t been paying close attention like those with a stake in legalization. So if the general public doesn’t understand what’s going with the laws, and something horrible happens in their community that they attribute to cannabis - such as a driver who is high and hits someone - the climate of acceptance could switch fast.

“You are asking people to change their mindset. Don’t be dismissive, because you need those people to understand why this is happening, what to expect, and that we are all responsible actors. If not, they are the ones who have the political power,” she told Civilized.

The laws surrounding packaging and other restrictions may loosen up in the future, she said. But she stressed that it’s too soon to speculate about those changes given that the new laws haven’t yet taken effect.

Anne McLellan

Combating underage cannabis use

Activists, never shy of making their political powers known, have criticized the laws for being too strict, imposing harsh penalties, and not legalizing elements that have long been fought for, like the right to use cannabis in public spaces. McLellan said they shouldn’t be surprised with the laws, since they were always designed to tighten access in order to keep pot out of the hands of young people (in this case, “young”  means those under 18).

According to UNICEF, Canadian youth consume more pot than their cohorts in any other country. McLellan said the task force learned from Colorado and Washington that it’s better to be stricter with the laws from the outset and loosen them if needed, rather than trying to go the other way.

But she stressed during her talk that lawmakers need to be adaptable and flexible with the new laws — traits, she pointed out, that are uncommon in government. Despite widespread consultation, both within Canada and in other jurisdictions where cannabis is already legalized, like Colorado and Uruguay, she says we should expect that the new laws are going to need work.

Working with indigenous communities

Much of that ongoing consultation work, so far, has to do with consultation of Indigenous communities. The Aboriginal Peoples committee has called government consultation efforts “atrocious” and asked for a year’s delay to address it.

“Does anyone ever think they’ve been consulted enough? No, not really, and I understand that,” McLellan told Civilized. “But I think with Indigenous Canadians [consultation] is important because they are the first people, and they have unique rights.”

She said it’s the federal government’s responsibility to hear from both groups and individuals within Indigenous communities, and also that it will take time to do so since there is a diversity of opinion within those communities.

In short, it’s going to take time either way before these laws meet their final form.

“This is transformative public policy. This is not going to be perfect in the first year or the first few years,” she told Monday’s audience. “For the first decade that legalization is in place, we are all going to be learning and adapting….There will be surprises. We have to be flexible and nimble to adapt to the surprise.”