Since coming to power, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been tight-lipped about how he will fulfill his campaign promise to legalize, regulate and restrict access to cannabis in Canada. We know which ministers will oversee legalization, we know former Toronto police chief Bill Blair will lead the task force on cannabis, and we know why the government wants to legalize.
But we don't have a timetable for the end of prohibition in Canada, nor do we have an idea of what the regulated system will look like.
The message so far has been that the Liberals will take a slow and cautious approach to the issue. On Feb. 7, Bill Blair told The Globe and Mail that the government won't be rushed as it figures out how to legalize cannabis in a "careful and orderly way." He added, "We will take the time that is necessary to get this right."
But is that code for putting marijuana on the government's back burner indefinitely? Ian MacLeod thinks so. In an article published by The National Post on Feb. 9, MacLeod wrote, "Don't hold your breath for the legalization of marijuana to happen any time soon."
He came to that conclusion after looking over a briefing book issued to Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, who was given the mandate to legalize cannabis. The 415-page document outlines the justice minister's priorities for her first 100 days in office. Legalization is the last item on the list. Most of the information is redacted, MacLeod reported. What's left is a reiteration of the campaign promise, an outline of federal departments who will be involved in legalization, and an update on court cases involving the home cultivation of medical marijuana.
But is that enough to sound the alarm bells?
We asked a few Canadian activists and advocates for their opinion. Here's what they said.
1. Decriminalize right away and legalize later
Lisa Campbell the Women Grow Toronto Chair - told Civilized Canadians should not be alarmed by the briefing book:
"Just because it's at the back of the Justice Ministers briefing book doesn't mean the wheels aren't already in motion. The cannabis industry is looking for regulation and guidelines, but those take time to develop."
And the governing party has been working on the issue for some time, she says, since as early as 2012, when the Liberals adopted cannabis legalization into party policy. However, Campbell is critical of the government for not making it a priority to take a step toward that goal by decriminalizing cannabis:
"Decriminalization would be easy to implement immediately," she says. "But MP Bill Blair has given no indication of doing so despite having widespread support in 2013 from Canada's police chiefs."
And she's not alone: many activists have called on the government to decriminalize so that Canadians don't face arrest for simple possession charges, and taxpayer dollars aren't wasted on laws that will soon be off the books. This petition is being circulated calling on the government to decriminalize cannabis immediately.
2. Help weed out bad dispensaries
Alex Abellan - CEO of National Access Cannabis - understands that Trudeau has a lot of pressing things to do. And while he isn't alarmed or surprised about legalization being set aside, he thinks that the government has to do something quickly to federally regulate the spread of "gray market" dispensaries - illegal storefronts that sell cannabis to medical marijuana patients.
Right now, licensed producers authorized by Health Canada can only send their product to patients through a mail-order system. But Abellan argues that the dispensaries offer invaluable advice to patients:
"They educate their patients on strains, how to use it with vaporizers, how to make their own strains. Many of these dispensaries are good, but not all of them. We need regulations to make sure that they have minimum standards to follow."
But those dispensaries aren't regulated, so there's no way to ensure the cannabis sold doesn't contain harmful pesticides, moulds or other contaminates. Ideally, Abellan wants the licensed producers to work with the dispensaries to help patients, but he thinks the government needs to step in to make that happen:
"How can they collaborate with these dispensaries when there are no rules and regulations for the dispensaries to follow? We could let the LPs pick the right dispensaries, but there will be lawsuits and people will be upset. Who will get the licensing for these producers? We need the government to clarify the legality of these dispensaries, and to introduce regulations to let dispensaries and LPs to work together to provide safe access to cannabis."
The government does have the power to tweak the nation's medical marijuana laws without Parliament's approval, but Trudeau would have to take his minister's time away from other business to make those changes happen.
3. The market will sort itself out - for better or for worse
Craig Jones - Executive Director of NORML Canada - told Civilized he suspects that the government has quietly put the cannabis issue aside in order to focus on other concerns:
"The global economy on commodities, which is a large part of Canada's gross domestic product, has crashed, and the Canadian dollar has crashed. And the government has promised to spend money on infrastructure, which is sorely needed. Infrastructure dominates the conversation. And external issues like ISIS. When you put all those things in the hopper, cannabis doesn't seem like a big issue compared to those."
And Jones doesn't completely blame the government, because he agrees there are more pressing concerns right now:
"I want to say that legalization should be a higher priority. But speaking realistically, when put into the context of all the other issues faced by this government, it's not. It's not like there's a great deal of organized crime to contend with regarding cannabis. Because organized crime has moved on to enterprises with a higher profit line, such as methamphetamine and heroin."
But he does thinks the delay may unintentionally create a lot more work for Trudeau and his ministers once they get around to legalizing:
"The gray market is taking its own path, which is entirely to be expected. By the time they [the Liberals] actually get around to it [legalization], they'll face this proliferation of entrepreneurs who have filled the vacuum....Without official regulation, the gray market will establish what you might call 'facts on the ground,' which won't be regulations of the kind that the government would have preferred. But since it was not a high priority, the market established itself on its own terms and the government is a johnny-come-lately."
And although the gray market involves medical dispensaries at present, Jones thinks they will soon branch out:
"I think what will happen is that the medical dispensaries will find an increasing number of people who show up with medical complaints, and they're seeking medical treatment. It's like California, where a medical regime turned into a recreational regime. I imagine something like that could happen because governments don't move quickly on these things. But the market moves on its own timetable and it moves faster than the government. The ultimate takeaway is that there are social forces over which government has some control, if they choose to exercise it. But not enacting a new regime quickly is the same as giving over control to forces that they can't control, such as the market. Not making a decision is equivalent to making a decision."
Already, the city of Vancouver has started regulating local "gray market" dispensaries. And the nearby city of Victoria will soon be following suit. So the market is already working itself out, and the longer the Liberals wait on legalization, the more they will have to play catch up.