The Canadian government's handling of pressing questions regarding marijuana legalization has raised a number of red flags. On June 30, federal cabinet ministers held a press conference on Parliament Hill to introduce the task force that will advise the government on regulating recreational marijuana use. During the event, Bill Blair - Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada - promised an "open and transparent engagement process" for legalizing.
But comments made by Blair and other members of the government made the process seem opaque, contradictory and disengaged from the concerns of people who will be most affected by the forthcoming regulations: Canada's medical and non-medical cannabis users.
Here are four reasons to be concerned about the government's handling of marijuana legalization.
1. Disproportionate representation
There nine-member task force brings together Canadians from across the country who have a wealth of experience in legislation, law enforcement and substance abuse training. However, the team doesn't include anyone who can represent the interests and concerns of medical or non-medical cannabis consumers.
That worries longtime activists like Jodie Emery, who says that the government is marginalizing the people who have spent decades fighting for marijuana reform.
"The government is treating the activist community like criminals, when we are the ones responsible for making legalization a reality, through our protests, political campaigns, education and outreach," she told Vancouver's News 1130. "There should be at least one leading activist or advocate who helped make legalization possible."
She added that people who have been impacted most by marijuana prohibition should have a say in how it's legalized and regulated:
"Millions of Canadians have been arrested for marijuana, thousands have been sent to prison, so the victims of marijuana law enforcement should have a say from a criminal justice and civil liberties angle," says Jodie Emery.
Craig Jones - Executive Director of NORML Canada - was also concerned about the task force lacking a member with first-hand cannabis experience. "I'm looking for ONE cannabis user. Just one," he told Civilized. "I think the Liberals are going for maximum optics on this — they know the whole world will be watching so they're calling together people with all the right credentials."
So the task force's composition might reassure onlookers who are nervous about legalization. But it has raised anxieties among those who have led the movement for reform.
2. Double-speak on regulations
During the June 30 press conference, the government offered contradictory messages on marijuana regulations. When asked what the framework will look like, Health Minister Jane Philpott said it was too early to say.
"No decisions have been made about what this legislation will look like. We have put those questions to the task force and we look forward to their recommendations. We'll take those recommendations into consideration. We will consult with experts across the country with all appropriate interest groups and stakeholders to get the best advice. It would be premature at this time to weigh in on what that legislation will look like."
But earlier in the press conference, Bill Blair made it sound like the government has already decided to treat cannabis as a dangerous drug and impose strict regulations on the recreational marijuana market.
"[Cannabis] is not like tomatoes," Blair said. "I think the science is overwhelmingly clear that marijuana is not a benign substance. That it presents a risk to certain sections of our population, particularly kids with the impact on developing adolescent brains. But it can also have an impact on people who are very frequent users or who are suffering from other illnesses - particularly mental illness. Therefore I think it is very much in the interest of Canadians...[to ensure that] an effective and comprehensive regulatory framework is put in place to control the production, distribution and consumption of marijuana in order to achieve those aims [of protecting communities, kids and health of Canadians]."
So it appears that the task force hasn't made its mind up about marijuana, but the government has, even though the science of cannabis' health effects is still being debated.
3. Ducking questions on Allard
Recreational use isn't the only cannabis issue that the task force will tackle. When outlining the team's responsibilities, Bill Blair revealed that they would be studying ways of "providing continued access to medical marijuana" in Canada.
Access to medical marijuana will actually change next month when the government responds to the decision in the Allard case - a lawsuit that successfully challenged Health Canada's decision to ban medical marijuana patients from growing cannabis for personal use. Federal Court Justice Michael Phelan ruled that the ban was unconstitutional and gave the government until August 24 to rectify the situation.
Since the government didn't appeal the ruling, you might expect that Canada's estimated 75,000 patients will get the green light to grow at home next month. But Health Minister Philpott didn't give an encouraging answer last Thursday when a reporter asked for an update on the new regulations.
"We recognize that Canadians need to have access to marijuana for medical purposes," she said. "My officials and my team are working on the response to the decision that was made. And we have until the end of August to make that response. And we look forward to presenting out response at that time."
We don't want to hit the panic button here. But the fact that Philpott does not even indicate that the response will comply with the court ruling is concerning. Perhaps she was unprepared to comment on the issue because the conference was held to discuss the task force specifically. But some indication of the government's plans might have reassured patients who are legally growing their medicine under an injunction that expires next month.
And Thursday's response was characteristic of the government's silence on the issue ever since the Allard ruling came down last February. So patients will just have to wait and see what happens next.
4. Obey the law...even while the government breaks it
Ironically, one of the few clear messages that the government offered last Thursday was that the sale, possession and use of cannabis for non-medical purposes would remain illegal until the legalization framework was ready.
"Canadians should expect that local law enforcement authorities will continue to deal with illegal marijuana sales and uphold the law," said Michel Picard - Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness. "Ladies and gentlemen, as we move forward keep in mind that the law is the law until new regulation system in in place."
So Canadians are expected to obey cannabis laws - even while the federal government breaks them.
Canada has signed on to three United Nations treaties that uphold international marijuana prohibition. And Trudeau's government can't legalize recreational marijuana use without breaking those agreements as they are currently worded. So legal experts have called on the government either to negotiate an exception for cannabis within those agreements or to formally withdraw from them so that Canada doesn't breach its commitments to the international community.
However, Justice Minister Jody WIlson-Raybould suggested that Canada could uphold those treaties even while breaking them.
"We very much respect our international obligations," she said during the June 30 conference. "We've been very open. Our commitment as a government is to ensure that we do move forward…with the legalization of marijuana - strict regulation and restricting access. We're going to move forward in a very open and transparent way. And we'll certainly continue to work with my colleagues, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs [Stéphane Dion] on international discussions. But ensuring that we move forward in a very thoughtful way, respecting all of the obligations that we have."
Perhaps there is some way for Canada to remain compliant with those agreements while legalizing marijuana. But, if that's the case, Wilson-Raybould should have discussed that nuance instead of offering another mixed message. Right now it appears as though the government is telling Canadians to do as we say, not as we do.
Banner image: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reviews the highlights of his Liberal government's first parliamentary session. One of them may not have been its handling of the cannabis legalization file, to this point anyway. (Art Babych / Shutterstock.com)