Cannabis activist Dana Larsen says marijuana-legalization bill contains "bizarre" penalties

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      The federal Liberals tabled a bill in the House of Commons at noon on Thursday (April 13) to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in Canada.

      The Cannabis Act  would tighten Canada’s impaired-driving laws regarding being under the influence of cannabis. In an effort to keep cannabis away from youth and its profits from criminals, it would also set the legal minimum age for purchasing pot at 18, according to federal officials.

      Dana Larsen, a local advocate for marijuana reform, told the Georgia Straight that an individual’s ability to possess 30 grams of cannabis and grow up to four plants, as proposed in the act, is a step in the right direction but that there are many flaws to the legislation “that need to be dealt with”.
      He said the new law will continue to treat cannabis more severely than alcohol.

      The legislation will make it a criminal offence to sell cannabis to a minor and will impose severe penalties on those who engage youth in cannabis-related offences: up to 14 years in prison.

      “If you sell alcohol to a minor in Canada, you get a fine; if you now give or sell cannabis to a minor, it’s a maximum 14-year jail sentence," Larsen said in a phone interview.  "That is on par with violent crimes, assaults, and rape, which have penalties in that range. It is bizarre that it’s so extreme.”

      Driving under the influence

      Penalties for impaired driving in the new bill may range from a $1,000 fine to life imprisonment, depending on severity. The government is also proposing a regulated limit of THC in a driver’s bloodstream. A roadside saliva test would help determine impairment and could prompt a further blood test.

      But Larsen said there is no direct correlation between blood THC levels and whether or not you are impaired for driving.

      “There’s no scientific basis for anything like that,” Larsen said. Those who are under the influence of marijuana, he said, are still drastically less impaired than they would be under the effect of legal quantities of alcohol.

      “The idea that they are going to create some kind of blood-testing system, it will simply mean that no one who uses cannabis will ever be able to drive again.”

      B.C.’s growing opportunity

      During a live-streamed news conference in Ottawa earlier today, Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale said the proposed legislation would create a “new tightly regulated supply chain, where producers are federally licensed, and the provinces and territories look over the distribution and selling of cannabis”.

      Although the government’s plan will lift the 94-year-old prohibition on recreational use of marijuana, Larsen said it is not enough.

      “There hasn’t been any positivity from the provincial leaders,” Larsen said. “They should be saying, ‘Thank you; finally, one of B.C.’s biggest industries will be legalized. Now we can generate tens of thousands of jobs and we can save all this money on policing'. But there’s been none of that from any province, especially in B.C.”

      A February 2017 poll from NRG Research Group found that 57 percent of B.C. adults support marijuana legalization. In 2015, local polling company Insights West found that 65 percent of Canadians are in favour of recreational legalization. In B.C., the current underground cannabis market is worth an estimated $7 billion annually.

      ‘This is by no means the final step’

      Larsen predicted that legalization could be damaging to B.C.’s economy if not carried out properly.

      “The transition from illegality to legality has to be managed in such a way in British Columbia that we retain those jobs and we retain those benefits of legalization. I’m not seeing that.”

      Parliamentary Secretary and MP Bill Blair said during the news conference that there has been an overwhelming consensus from provinces and territories for a new and regulated regime. Minister of Health Jane Philpott went on to say that there will be differences provincially. “Some have already started the dialogue on this issue. We hope that they implement their regimes as soon as possible.”

      Unless B.C. demands more powers, Larsen said, he believes that the province will not have any influence over who gets licensed and will not be able to protect B.C’s local cannabis industry.

      “They will have to demand more responsibility over cannabis, like they have over alcohol. We need a premier who will tell the federal government that we want to be giving out these licenses and we don’t want them to be the sole deciders of who gets to grow cannabis.”

      Larsen is a former vice president of the Canadian Association of Cannabis Dispensaries. He told the Straight that he is a director of the Vancouver Dispensary Society, a registered nonprofit that sells medicinal marijuana at two Vancouver locations.

      The federal government has said it hopes to provide regulated and restricted access to marijuana no later than July 2018.