Task Force Chair Anne McLellan: 'Expect Surprises' When Canada Legalizes Marijuana

Anne McLellan is a reluctant cannabis culture icon in Canada. As chair of the government's cannabis task force, McLellan oversaw a team that researched the science, culture and business of cannabis to propose regulations for the bill that will legalize recreational cannabis use in Canada later this year.

Along the way, she picked up a couple nicknames that she's a bit perplexed about. 

"When I became chair of the task force on cannabis, all of the sudden, I got called the 'princess of pot' and the 'queen of weed,' which is all very funny and ironic because I'm not a user - never have been," she told Civilized in a recent interview. 

But she is looking forward to addressing the Canadian pathway to legalization this June as the keynote speaker at the World Cannabis Congress in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada.

"It's important for people to understand what the task force did and what our principles were around public safety and public health," McLellan explained. "We're not in the business of promoting use, but we are in the business - as we go through this transformation - of ensuring that the fundamental principles of public health and public safety are front and centre. So the Congress gives me - on behalf of the task force - an opportunity to reinforce those values." 

How did you react when you were asked to chair a task force that would revolutionize Canadian drug laws? 

It was my former colleague and dear friend, the Honourable Ralph Goodale - Minister of Public Safety - who called me and asked if I would be interested in chairing the task force. I did initially suggest to Ralph that maybe I wasn't the best person to do that. But Ralph is quite persuasive.

And it was an interesting public policy challenge. After thinking more about it, I came to the conclusion that it was an important public policy initiative not only for the government but obviously for the country. And that the advice that we would provide the government would be - we hoped - important to their final decisions as to how to implement their commitment to legalization and regulation.

So, I guess, at the end of the day, I like a challenge, and this was a challenge that was an important one, and I thought this was worth doing. 

When you said someone else might be better for the position, was that because you didn't have a background in the science of cannabis, or because you were opposed to legalization, or another reason?

Oh, I wasn't opposed to legalization. I don't think this is a job anyone would take if you were opposed to legalization.

It was because I had dealt with cannabis in my previous political life. When I was federal Minister of Health, we were still in the process of developing regulations for the medicinal use of cannabis. And that had its ups and downs. When I was Minister of Justice, we had our ups and downs. When I was Minister of Public Safety, we had our ups and downs in terms of cannabis and the approach of government to cannabis and its users. So I had a history that was - I would say - an interesting and not always easy one. 

What were those ups and downs like?

The different portfolios I held involved enforcing the existing laws, which was not without controversy for some activists and so on. And as Minister of Health, I faced the challenge of developing regulations for medicinal cannabis use, but how do you make that happen in a way that worked for everybody? My involvement with cannabis before I chose the task force was interesting. 

I'm sure you also learned lots of interesting things as the head of the task force. What was something surprising that you learned about cannabis or the cannabis industry while consulting experts and stakeholders in America's legal states?

One thing that surprised me was the growth of edibles in states like Colorado and Washington. I could've left the state of Washington with cannabis-infused spaghetti sauce, for example. I hadn't thought about all the uses for cannabis oil in everyday foodstuffs. So that was interesting to me.

And of course we had seen the growth of edibles in states that have legalized. And I think we expect to see the same growth in edibles in Canada once edibles are legalized and regulated.

Are you disappointed that edibles aren't included in Canada's legalization bill?

I think the task force was disappointed. But having said that, we understand why.

This is a big change in the way we approach cannabis in this country. And many existing laws and regulatory systems have to be either modified or changed to accommodate the legalization and regulation of cannabis in whatever form. And I think the government and departments felt they just could not make all the required changes to our complex system of food and drug laws in time for a start date in or around July 2018. So the standing committee on health proposed an amendment, which was adopted by the House, that edibles would be available with the appropriate regulatory provisions within 12 months of legalization. 

Would it have been better if edibles were available and the rules around edibles were set right out of the box? Sure. But I think that's fine as long as we see edibles regulated and available in the near future. Otherwise, what you will leave a longer period of time for the illegal marketplace to fill that space.

It's funny to see the criticism that the government's received because of that delay. For a while, it looked like legalization would never happen.


And now, people are impatient because it's not happening fast enough. 

Yes, exactly.

And I've even heard some people say they think Justin Trudeau is worse on the marijuana issue than [former Prime Minister] Stephen Harper was. How would you respond if someone said that to you?

Um...[laughs]. Okay, I'm trying to be polite here [laughs]. I guess people just don't understand the transformation that is taking place with legalization and regulation. Before that, everything other than medicinal was illegal. People could be charged for simple possession of small amounts for personal use. People were driven into the illegal marketplace where you have no quality control, where you're breaking the law - both the producer and the user.

So I guess I would say, people need to get a grip and realize this is a fundamental transformation in our approach to a previously prohibited substance. And look: you're never going to satisfy all the activists out there. For some people in this space, reform will never go far enough or come fast enough. But I think for most activists and most people who want to use or do use, this is something they never thought they'd see in their lifetimes.   

And the comparison to Harper is strange since he had no intention of decriminalizing, let alone legalizing cannabis.

Well, you never know where people come from on these issues. For some, I am sure it will never be enough. But so be it. In government, you get used to not being able to satisfy everyone. Your job in government is to come up with responsible public policy that does not endanger the health and safety of Canadians. 

And at the same time, fulfill commitments to people outside the borders.

That's right. 

Are any task-force members of government ministers concerned that Canada might see some backlash for moving away from its commitment to uphold international prohibition?

I don't know about backslash as such. We were focused on recommendations for a domestic regulatory regime in the task force report. But we do reference the fact that there are UN conventions and it will be up to the government of Canada to deal with the concerns of the United Nations and the International Narcotics Control Board.

I would be surprised if the government of Canada was not questioned and asked to explain and defend their domestic policy around legalization and regulation because the conventions are there.

If you could do the task force over again, is there anything you'd do differently?

I don't know. I think we carried out our mandate. And that was to meet with people around the country in round-table sessions involving many well-informed people from all sides of the cannabis area, to take into account the experiences in other jurisdictions that have legalized, and to meet with patients, meet with young people, meet with indigenous Canadians. We did that.

Now, somebody could say, 'Well, you didn't meet with me.' And yes, that's probably right. But we had five months in which to do this work. We wanted to meet with the broadest cross-section of informed Canadians as possible. Every Canadian had the opportunity to go online and submit their views, opinions and suggestions to us. And over 30,000 Canadians and over 300 organizations did that.

So I think at the end, within the timeframe we had, we carried out our mandate. And I think as a task force, we're proud of the work we did. The government has largely adopted our report and our recommendations, which is all you can hope for when you're asked to do something for the government like this task force. Many task force reports end up on shelves, never acted on. Whereas the government here has taken our task force report and largely followed it. So I don't think task force members could ask for more. 

While putting the report together, was there any piece of advice from stakeholders or experts that particularly stuck out and stayed with you during the process? 

Everyone we met with in Colorado, Washington and Oregon said expect surprises. And be flexible and nimble as you roll our your new regulatory regime because you do not know what those surprises will be.

And we'll be following those surprises here as well as elsewhere in the world as more countries reform their cannabis laws. What advice would you offer to Mexico or another country that is considering legalization?

Be thoughtful and learn from the experiences of others. But that learning has to be put into the context of the culture and legal regime of the country that's considering legalization. Mexico cannot take what Canada is doing as a blueprint because Mexican culture is different. The people of Mexico are different. Their aspirations are different. You can look at Canada, talk to people in Canada, and learn from the Canadian experience, but then you have to take what you think is relevant as the government of Mexico and build your regulatory regime based upon your national circumstances, your culture, your experience with cannabis consumption in the past.

That's what we did when we looked at Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Uruguay. We talked about colleagues in Uruguay about their experience. They're the first country to legalize at the national level. But they're a country of 3.5 million people. That's half the size of the GTA. So we can learn from their experience, but their experience is not going to be directly relevant to a country the size of Canada with a dispersed population with different experiences. The experience of cannabis in the lower mainland of British Columbia is very different than in northern Saskatchewan

You don't want to promote use, of course, but if a licensed producer wanted to honour your work for the task force by naming a strain after you, what would you want that strain to be called?

I actually don't want a strain named after me. I don't want anything named after me. The task force was nine people. Nine amazing people with diverse backgrounds from across the country bringing their expertise to develop what we believe to be the most thoughtful, best-informed public policy recommendations possible. And that's what we did.

It's not about me. It's about all of us working together thoughtfully on behalf of the government and, we believe, all Canadians to get this 'right' — in quotes because there will be surprises. There will be some unintended consequences. And we will have to work through those.

So I don't want anything named after me.

It sounds like the honor was getting to work with that team.

Exactly. And to work with the ministers involved at the time. Minister of Health Jane Philpott, Minister of Justice Jody WIlson-Raybould and my dear friend Ralph Goodale - Minister of Public Safety. And we worked with such a dedicated, thoughtful group of public servants. We had a secretariat in the Department of Health of 22 people who worked day and night to make sure the task force had everything we needed to do the best we could on behalf of Canadians. They should be acknowledged too.

But none of us want anything named after us. We just hope this legislation makes its way through parliament and is implemented in a thoughtful way, taking into account the values that we put forward in the report.

The World Cannabis Congress, presented by Civilized, is helping advance the global cannabis industry by bringing together the brightest minds from around the world to connect, share insight, shape policy and do business. Happening June 10-12, 2018 in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, the World Cannabis Congress is the must-attend event for top cannabis business leaders, policy makers and innovators. To learn more or to request an invitation, please visit worldcannabiscongress.com.

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