The unofficial leader of Canada’s marijuana-reform movement had a succinct reaction to the Liberal’s October 19 victory over the tough-on-crime Conservatives.
“Holy smokes,” Jodie Emery said in a telephone interview. “We were all joking about how activists are out of a job. Mission accomplished. Now what?”
In his campaign for prime minister, Liberal party leader Justin Trudeau promised his government would fully legalize and regulate the sale and consumption of recreational cannabis. That pledge went significantly further than NDP leader Thomas Mulcair’s plan to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of pot. While decriminalization leaves supply to the black market, Trudeau insisted Canada should regulate cannabis in ways similar to how the country handles other controlled substances, such as alcohol and tobacco.
“It is time that Canada adjusted to the reality that controlling and regulating marijuana is a way of both protecting our kids, protecting the public, and ensuring that we are not financing gangs to millions and millions of dollars,” Trudeau told the Straight at an August 19 campaign stop in Vancouver.
Now, Emery said, there are a thousand questions about how that will happen.
“What kind of system are we going to have?” she asked. "Now it really comes down to the details....But right away, they have to stop arresting people. The first step has to be an immediate decriminalization-type system where nobody is arrested for possession anymore."
In March, Trudeau told CKNW Radio that a Liberal government would begin by decriminalizing marijuana “in a very rapid fashion”. That requires removing cannabis from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which would save a lot of people from negative interactions with police. From 2003 to 2012, the B.C. Ministry of Justice recorded charging 44,522 people for crimes related to cannabis. (Though it might be further down the road, Trudeau has also said a Liberal government would be "looking into" how it might "overturn previous convictions" for crimes related to marijuana.)
Exactly what comes next is less certain, but a 38-page Liberal party draft “policy paper” dated January 2013 provides many hints.
It recommends marijuana be sold in retail storefronts, perhaps similar to those already operating in Vancouver. That document repeatedly emphasizes a legitimate marijuana industry should be heavily regulated. It points to tobacco and alcohol sales as examples, noting there are strict rules for how those products are supplied, sold, and advertised.
It also analyzes American states that have legalized cannabis such as Washington, and acknowledges a number of issues with which those jurisdictions have struggled.
“To be successful and prevent organized crime from maintaining a black market, the price of legal marijuana must be lower than it is now,” it reads. “At the same time, the product’s quality must be at least as good – if not better.”
As the owner of a number of Vancouver dispensaries, Don Briere conceded he stands to gain a lot from Trudeau’s plan. “We were dancing in the streets,” he recalled of election night. But Briere argued people who have nothing to do with pot also stand to benefit.
He explained that while he’s paid federal GST on weed sold through his dispensaries, he hasn’t paid PST to the province. That’s because authorities consider cannabis sold through Vancouver storefronts to be medicinal, and medications are exempt from PST. Briere said if a new Liberal government permits the sale of recreational marijuana, those sales would be subject to PST, and that would translate into millions of dollars in new money for the provinces.
“I alone have paid over $200,000 in GST on marijuana,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of time, and we’ll continue to add to that.”
In the Liberals’ policy paper, it’s calculated that legalizing marijuana will bring in $4 billion in government revenue each year. In addition, an older special senate committee report, from 2002, estimates between $300 and $500 million spent on law enforcement and the justice system annually could be saved by legalizing cannabis. Meanwhile, the Liberals project implementing a new regulatory scheme will carry a price tag of just $65 million over five years.
In a telephone interview, Joyce Murray, the re-elected Liberal MP for Vancouver Quadra, was reluctant to predict what tangible form legal marijuana sales might take. She said the initial emphasis will be on consultation and discussions with the provinces and municipal governments.
“What’s important is the principles,” she said. “And the principles are to prevent under-age access to marijuana as well as to stabilize the safety of the product.”
Dan Werb is director of the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy and the lead author of an August 2015 report that summarized existing research related to marijuana use and the consequences of proposed regulations. He noted legalizing cannabis can lead to increases of reported use among youth, but emphasized that’s not an inevitable outcome.
“From a public health standpoint, look to the successes we’ve had with tobacco regulation,” he said. “We’ve seen an incremental decrease in the use of tobacco among young people. And I think that is a responsible framework to use.”
Emery warned that Trudeau hasn’t acted on the marijuana file yet.
She stressed that a number of players will now be jockeying for influence over how new regulations take shape. She said those could include reform advocates, health watchdogs, industry stakeholders, and representatives and lobbyists for potential competitors to recreational marijuana such as pharmaceutical corporations and beer and liquor retailers.
Emery also emphasized that today, police across Canada still have the authority arrest anybody caught with a joint.
“The Harper legacy of prohibition will continue for some time,” she said. “And now the Liberals will have to make sure they don’t over-regulate.”