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Canada Is On Track To Legalize Cannabis, But Here's Why It Will Still Be A Bumpy Ride

This week, Canada's cannabis task force released a report with 80 recommendations for the federal government to consider while drafting regulations for the country's legal recreational marijuana market. But even with that intel, the road to legalization will be a bumpy ride as Canada becomes the second country in the world to legalize recreational marijuana (after Uruguay).

Here are six reasons why the road ahead will be rocky but still worthwhile for Canada to take.

1. Expect the Unexpected

During a press conference introducing the report, Anne McLellan - the head of cannabis task force - warned that there will be plenty of surprises ahead as Canada tries to build a successful legalization regime.

"We are only the second nation to move forward in this way," she said. "And we were told by those who have gone before to expect surprises. While there are important lessons to be learned from places like Colorado and Washington state, designing and implementing a Canadian system is a unique undertaking." 

And the world will be watching, so there is tremendous pressure to get this process right so that other countries can look at Canada as a successful model for legalization.

"It's very important to the government of Canada to get this right," McLellan added. "We are the largest developed country ever to move on legalization."

2. Provincial Opposition

During the press conference, Dr. Mark Ware - one of the nine members of the task force - was asked if any provinces or territories opposed legalization. His answer suggests that at least a couple of unnamed regions aren't keen on cannabis.

"We heard a diversity of opinions from the provinces and territories," he said. "Some of them were much more prepared and ready to engage. Some of them were still in the process of working through their own thinking on the issues."

But he thinks communication and cooperation with the federal government will help them overcome their reservations.

"What we hope to see is strong collaboration between the federal government and the provinces to ensure that there's adequate support...and that these models roll out in as effective and as safe a way as possible," he added.

3. Uncertain Timelines

The task force submitted their report on time. Now it's up to the federal government to fulfill their promise to introduce a legalization bill by spring 2017. After that, it's anyone's guess when recreational marijuana will officially become legal. 

"That is actually a decision for the government of Canada," McLellan said when asked for a timeline. "Our mandate was to provide advice to the government as to how they could go about legalization and creating a regulatory regime. Timelines from this point on in relation to implementation issues are up to the government of Canada."

4. Mystery Retailers

We also don't know exactly where marijuana will be sold. The task force recommends taking steps to ensure that small cannabis businesses and craft growers can operate alongside big corporations, but the provinces and territories will decide where you buy your marijuana.

"The final decisions around the form of retail will be up to provinces, probably working with municipalities and the communities they represent," McLellan said. "There are a number of models which we discuss in the report, but at the end of the day, we are very respectful of the fact that any final decision around that matter will be up to the provinces [and territories]."

McLellan added that the market will also decide how - or if smaller businesses will survive. "I think the government needs to understand the value of a diverse market with growers of different sizes and arguably different expertise and so on. But at the end of the day, how that market ultimately develops is up to the government of Canada - and, quite honestly, the marketplace."

5. New Cannabis Crimes

Legalization doesn't mean anything goes when it comes to marijuana. The task force recommends imposing caps on the amount of cannabis that Canadians can buy, grow and carry around with them. And they think the government should punish anyone who sells cannabis to minors. Breaking those laws will come with penalties, but we don't know how those offenders will be punished.

"What the exact penalties might be...would be something that I'm sure the Department of Justice would take a look at," McLellan said. "Those were not things that we saw within our mandate. But we were pretty clear about the kinds of things that we think should still be subject to criminal prohibition."

So the public will need to be mindful of the new laws and penalties to avoid becoming cautionary tales in post-prohibition Canada.

6. Potential Pardons

The task force also decided that it wasn't in their mandate to recommend whether or not the government should pardon people with criminal records for crimes that will be scrubbed from the books once Canada repeals cannabis prohibition.

"That was not part of our mandate," McLellan said. "It will be up to the Minister of Justice [Jody Wilson-Raybould] to determine if she and the government of Canada wish to make any recommendation in relation to those who have been convicted of simple possession in the past."

Conclusion: Full Steam Ahead

After going over all those concerns, reporters naturally wanted to know if the task force still thought legalization was a good idea. Anne McLellan's responded emphatically.

"Yes, yes, all nine members of the task force would not have taken up this task if we did not believe that," she said. "And I think we're all aware of the challenges and societal problems that the existing system has created. The existing system of prohibition has allowed illicit criminal organizations to flourish. We have also seen...the longterm stigma and consequences of a criminal conviction for simple possession. So there's no question that people in this country and in many jurisdictions are coming to the conclusion that prohibition is not working. And it is not meeting the basic principles of public health and safety that have to be at the core of this kind of public policy." 

Banner image: World Bank Photo Collection / 


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