Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has picked a former police chief to manage the marijuana legalization process in Canada. Trudeau has been roundly praised for most decisions he's made since winning last October's election. This is not one of them, with some prominent activists taking a dim view of Bill Blair's recent appointment.
Blair is the former Toronto police chief and current parliamentary secretary to Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. He brings more than 35 years of police experience to the job of overseeing the prime minister's plan to legalize, regulate and restrict access to cannabis nationwide.
Some believe that past experience is an asset; others see it as a liability. Here are some pro, con and mixed reactions:
Pro: Sends the right message
Adam Goldenberg, former a speechwriter for former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, told CTV News that picking Blair sends the right message to Canadians: "If your message is crime control and public safety, you can't ask for a better spokesperson than a former police chief." He also said it's great for optics: "It's going to be very difficult to point at an MP whom most of us are used to seeing in a highly decorated police uniform and accuse him of being soft on crime."
Pro: Gets law enforcers onside with legalization
"We've worked with him in the past," Wieghill told Global News. "He has an in-depth knowledge of drug enforcement and what the issues are. I think we have an excellent working relationship and one that we can build upon....They've picked somebody that is knowledgeable on the subject and I think that's really what you want is people that know intimately what some of the pros and cons are that can help drive this."
That rapport may help as the group is currently tepid toward legalization: "We don't dictate public policy," said Weighill, but he did say he wants the CACP involved when the government develops the regulatory framework. Having Blair in charge will surely make them more cooperative and comfortable with the process.
Con: Lets the fox into the henhouse
While some see Blair's work as a police chief as a strength, legalization activist Jody Emery sees Blair's background as a major liability:
"One of my concerns and one of the biggest concerns of the marijuana movement, the community who have been fighting for this for decades...is that police have always been the biggest cheerleaders for prohibition and they've been our adversaries in this whole historical movement," she told CTV News.
Her concerns echo the views of her husband - legalization activist Marc Emery. He told Civilized that cannabis consumers must "resist...ideas that the government can be putting our culture in the hands of people [e.g. police officers] who aren't entitled to it and don't understand it."
There's no doubt that Blair is a stranger to the culture: even though he bought cannabis while working undercover, he says he's never smoked a joint.
Con: Past experience could color his view of cannabis
Kirk Tousaw, a lawyer and medical marijuana advocate, thinks that Blair's police experience has likely skewed his perception of cannabis:
"People are creatures of their histories," Tousaw told The Globe and Mail. "If what you have seen of cannabis is gang violence and those kinds of things, I think you will have a perspective that is not necessarily in tune with the reality on the ground."
Mixed: A experienced cop, but less experienced than industry insiders
Montreal Gazette columnist James Mennie first praises Blair's cop's credentials:
"Bill Blair...will bring a lifetime of experience to his new assignment, experience I'm sure can't be matched by any government briefing note. And I suspect that, most importantly, Blair will bring an appreciation of how carefully the Trudeau government needs to tread on the issue. Not necessarily in selling the idea of legalization to those Canadians uncomfortable with another mind altering drug being moved into the column of social acceptability – but making sure the government finds that elusive sweet spot in pricing and availability that will short circuit the inevitable attempts to create a black market for weed."
But then he adds a touch of cynicism to his analysis: "There may well be candidates better suited for this job than Blair – problem is, they're probably the same people he spent much of his life trying to bust."
Mixed: A necessary evil
Although Jody Emery criticized the appointment of Blair, she also understands why the Liberals made that ideologically divisive but politically shrewd decision:
"The Liberals suffered a lot of attacks from the Conservatives over legalization. With the whole world watching Canada right now, the Liberal government doesn't want to be seen as pro-pot; they don't want to be perceived as legalizing it to make Canada into a weed country."
During the 2015 federal elections, the Conservatives repeatedly accused Trudeau of endangering children with his stance on cannabis. If Emery's right, then she and her fellow activists can thank former Prime Minister Stephen Harper for the appointment of someone like Blair.