It was a crisp and chilly night in Toronto yesterday, but tempers nearly boiled over inside the University of Toronto's Brennan Hall, where students, alumni and members of the public gathered to hear policymakers and experts weigh in on Canada's plan to legalize recreational marijuana next summer.
The event — titled 'Legalizing Marijuana: How To Get it Right' — featured some prominent figures who are shaping marijuana policy, including Parliamentary Secretary Bill Blair, Ontario’s provincial Attorney General Yasir Naqvi, psychiatrist Kwame McKenzie and industry insider Michael Lickver, who added levity to the tense event.
“If someone told me when I was a kid that I would be sitting across from [former police chief] Bill Blair, I’d say I would probably be in handcuffs,” Lickver said, to roaring laughter in the crowd. The lawyer and marijuana exec also shared highly sought perspectives on the growing industry. His firm, Cannabis Wheaton Income, generates revenue by investing in multiple licensed producers of cannabis across Canada, similar to the streaming model pioneered by Wheaton Precious Metals in the mining sector.
One of the tenser moments of the night came when panelist Dr. Mackenzie, CEO at the Wellesley Institute and Director of Health Equity at CAMH, told the audience that “there are 200 cannabis-related deaths in Canada each year.” This didn’t sit well with prominent cannabis activist Jodie Emery, seated at the front of the crowd, who interrupted the doctor and shouted that his remark was not true. Dr. Mackenzie stood by his remarks later on, but he did clarify that there were no recorded deaths directly from marijuana toxicity.
Bill Blair was the closest thing to a government spokesperson on the panel. Since the federal election in 2015, Blair has become the Liberal Party of Canada’s point person on the marijuana legalization file. Blair spoke of the “balance” that was needed in order to get legalization right. But he wasn’t afraid to call out some of the old Drug War tactics. “Clearly,” Blair said, “the egg in the frying pan didn’t work,” referring to the classic 1980’s anti-drug commercial entitled 'This Is Your Brain On Drugs' that punctuated the 'Just Say No' era of anti-drug propaganda.
I asked Mr. Blair if he believed it was disingenuous to say that the government is reducing reliance on the criminal justice system, when the proposed Cannabis Act increases the number of cannabis criminal offences from 7 to 45, with half of the offences carrying a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison. Blair said the issue is something that has been brought up by lawyers in the past, but assured me that the harshest punishments would be reserved for the worst offenders, and not adults who sell small amounts to each other.
Meanwhile, Ontario’s Attorney General Yasir Naqvi stressed that the province's proposed cannabis legislation mirrors how the province treats other substances such as alcohol and tobacco. Youth will be prohibited from purchasing cannabis, though Naqvi told the audience that such offences would be prosecuted under the provincial offences system, which would not result in a criminal record for the individual charged.
On a lighter note, Michael Lickver said that the future of legal marijuana must meet the demands of customers and be responsive to the times. “We need UberEats,” but for cannabis, the Wheaton exec mused.
Following the discussions, the crowd had a chance to ask questions and mingle with panelists, though the politicians on the panel were whisked away shortly afterwards by their handlers. The complementary alcohol provided at the tail-end of the night was a much-needed reprieve after some of the tenser moments — though I couldn’t help but wonder, if the event were held this time next year, whether the libations might instead contain the leafy green substance that the panel had gathered to talk about.