Canadians are set to get a glimpse at what the country's recreational marijuana industry could look like. The cannabis task force appointed by Parliamentary Secretary Bill Blair is expected to submit their recommendations to Justin Trudeau's government tomorrow. It's unclear when those recommendations will be made public.
The report ends a six-month period of research and consultation for task force chair Anne McLellan - a former federal cabinet minister - and her team of nine legislators, healthcare professional and law enforcers.
During that time, they received more than 30,000 online submissions from researchers, policy makers and average Canadians who filled out questionnaires. Some members also visited American states that have legalized recreational cannabis use in order to study legalization on the ground.
The report is expected to include recommendations about hot button issues like the age of majority for marijuana users, keeping high drivers off the roads, the best tax rate to apply to recreational marijuana sales and where cannabis can be sold.
The government isn't bound to follow the task force's recommendations. But the report will undoubtedly shape the legalization bill that Health Minister Jane Philpott promised to introduce to parliament by spring 2017. Passing that law would make Canada the second country to legalize cannabis after Uruguay. Although 29 American states have legalized medical use and 8 have okayed recreational marijuana, federal cannabis prohibition remains law in America.
A Contentious Team
Ever since it was created, the task force has been shadowed by critics in the cannabis community. The TF's members come from across the country, and they're equipped with a wealth of experience in legislation, law enforcement and substance-abuse training. But the team doesn't include anyone representing the concerns of medical and recreational cannabis consumers.
"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," longtime activist Jodie Emery told Vancouver's News 1130 last summer. "There should be at least one leading activist or advocate who helped make legalization possible."
Emery added that people who have suffered under prohibition should have a voice in legalization. "[T]he victims of marijuana law enforcement should have a say from a criminal justice and civil liberties angle."
Here are three key issues that will be addressed in the report.
1. Marijuana Retail Tax
Cannabis might seem like a cash cow, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly said that his government isn't legalizing marijuana for the sake of making money. In fact, he wants to make it affordable in order to cut illicit sales out of the market.
"The fact is that if you tax it too much, as you saw with cigarettes, you end up driving things toward a black market, which will not keep Canadians safe - particularly young Canadians," Trudeau said last December. "Yes, there is potential for a bit of revenue on that, but we're certainly not looking for a windfall."
So one of the bright sides of legalization is that the government isn't interested in gouging cannabis consumers.
2. Legal Age
Keeping young Canadians safe also means getting the marijuana age of majority right. The College of Family Physicians of Canada (CFPC) and other medical professionals argue that cannabis poses risks to the developing brain until the age of 25. But advocates and activists argue that setting the legal age that high could backfire.
"If it's too high we're basically just legalizing it for adults and creating more problems for the most vulnerable Canadians," Dr. Zach Walsh - a cannabis researcher at the University of British Columbia - told Civilized. "If 18-year-olds are left out, that's creating a black market that would also be accessible to 15-years-olds."
That's why Jordan Sinclair - Communications Manager for the medical marijuana producer Tweed - thinks that harmonizing the legal age for cannabis and alcohol might be the best policy.
"We of course support an age restriction for recreational cannabis sales to ensure it is kept out of the hands of children," Sinclair told Civilized. "Determining the exact age limit must reflect a careful assessment of health impacts, as well as not inadvertently leave a large opening for uncontrolled black market distribution to young people. Nineteen, similar to the age set for alcohol purchase in most Canadian provinces, might strike the appropriate balance."
"Young adults frequently experiment with marijuana," said Dr. Christine Grant, an adolescent medicine specialist at McMaster University.
"By aligning the legal age for cannabis use with that for other legally controlled substances, young adults will have access to a regulated product, with a known potency. They’ll also be less likely to engage in high−risk illegal activities to access cannabis."
Perhaps the most contentious issue surrounding legalization is where legal marijuana will be sold. That's because police across the country have been cracking down on illegal marijuana dispensaries - arresting owners and employees of illicit storefronts for offences that might be struck from federal law within a year.
Right now, Canadians can only legally purchase marijuana for medical use. And the only legal way to buy it is through the mail. Basically, patients have to order their medicine from one of Health Canada's licensed producers (LP's) and then wait for it to arrive through the post.
So it's not surprising that some advocates argue that the illegal storefronts offer patients better access and customer service than LP's by meeting with clients in person. Others say that dispensaries need to stay open to prevent the government from pushing small businesses out of the regulatory framework.
Without these rogue entrepreneurs fighting for the rights of small cannabis businesses, the government could hand Canada's recreational marijuana market over to the liquor industry, said Abi Roach, founder of the Cannabis Friendly Business Association (CFBA).
"In order for the craft industry not to get pushed out by the LP's and the government," Roach told Civilized, "we have to put our feet in the ground with some concrete and just stick it out."
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