Parliamentary Secretary Bill Blair, Canada’s ‘point man on marijuana legalization,’ stopped by the NewsTalk 610 studios to discuss legalization and his current tour, in which he is listening to various stakeholders in the process.
While part of the interview was the usual government talking points about legalization—protecting kids, taking money away from gangs, age limits, etc.—Blair also mentioned issues of increased enforcement against those selling outside the legal system, concerns from law enforcement and municipal politicians at the idea of personal production, and he repeatedly emphasized that the government's intent is to not promote the use of cannabis.
He also took the time to discuss a few key differences between Canada’s approach to legalization and the approach being taken by various US states: namely, the harm reduction approach taken by Canada as opposed to a ‘commercial/revenue’ based approach taken in the US.
While US Jurisdictions have legalized largely by a ballot initiative at a state level, Canada’s approach is to legalize fully at the federal level.
“In most of the American states, they began with a ballot initiative that said that ‘we’re going to legalize and tax it.’ So the regulatory regime they put in place was not a public health framework, it was a commercial framework—it was about how to maximize the revenue out of this thing. And one of the things they found very quickly is that there were a lot of unintended consequences by taking that approach.
“By the way, trafficking outside of that system will remain a crime. Production outside of the regulatory regime that is being proposed will remain a serious criminal offence, and I think a more serious criminal offence will be identified in supplying it to young people because there’s a very significant risk to young people." -Bill Blair, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada.
“We’ve tried to learn and apply that lesson. And our focus has been on what are all the things that we can do to reduce the social and health-related harms. And by investing in reducing those harms, the health harms, particularly to young people, the social harms that can occur as a result of the over-consumption and use of this drug, and it being used inappropriately in public spaces and how it affects others, all of those things are very much at the forefront of our thinking in developing the regulations to control its production, distribution, and consumption, and that wasn’t done in a lot of jurisdictions.
“And, fortunately, places like Colorado and Washington were very generous with sharing their experience, and I’ll also share perhaps one of the most important things that they told us is that you have to begin cautiously and strictly. It’s a lot easier to decide later based on the evidence and your experience to ease up on some things, but it’s almost impossible to start very loose and tighten down later. And that has frankly been very compelling to me that we have to approach this from a very strict regulatory standpoint and gather good data and good evidence and proceed advisedly, with the best advice of scientific experts on this as we go forward—to measure relentlessly and just be careful as we go forward.”
I want to make sure people understand, it is not the government’s intention to promote the use of this drug. What our government’s intention is, is to allow adults to make well-informed choices without facing criminal prosecution on this, but at the same time, we’re also putting the things in place to make sure that we do a better job of protecting our kids.” --Bill Blair, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada.
Blair also made a key point about the nature of the proposed liberal system of regulation, which is more laws and enforcement against those who operate ‘outside the regulatory regime.’
“We’re talking about implementing a very rigorous system of regulatory control over, first of all, production so that we know the providence, purity, and potency of whatever is being consumed by any Canadian adult in this country, and a strict system of regulation that will do a much better job of keeping it out of the hands of young people and other vulnerable populations, putting limits on how much can be sold and what’s in it and what its potency and things are, none of which can currently be done under the current system where we leave it up to criminals to make those decisions. But [we need a] strict regulatory system where there’s oversight and inspection and testing and rules and regulations that have real consequences.
“By the way, trafficking outside of that system will remain a crime. Production outside of the regulatory regime that is being proposed will remain a serious criminal offence, and I think a more serious criminal offence will be identified in supplying it to young people because there’s a very significant risk to young people.
“And the other thing that has to be done with this, it’s not just simply a matter of more law—and there will be much more law in regulating this drug—but it’s also important to invest in public education. There’s so many misconceptions among young people about the risks of this drug, we need to do a better job of informing kids.
“I’ve great confidence that given that information, more young people will make informed and intelligent decisions about their own health choices that will help them be healthier and safer.”
“In most of the American states... the regulatory regime they put in place was not a public health framework, it was a commercial framework—it was about how to maximize the revenue out of this thing. And one of the things they found very quickly is that there were a lot of unintended consequences by taking that approach." -Bill Blair, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada.
This method is intended to succeed at the goals of prohibition while changing the approach, explains Blair.
“What the government is proposing to do is to change the system of control for cannabis. And quite frankly the current system of prohibition is doing a lousy job of keeping this drug out of the hands of our kids.
“We have the highest rates of marijuana use among young people of any country in the world. And it’s left the entire multi-billion dollar business of cannabis production and distribution in the hands of organized crime. And so we believe that there’s a far more effective way to protect our kids and keep our communities safe, by taking the profits away from organized crime by replacing prohibition with a strict system of regulatory control, strict regulations that will control the production, distribution, and the consumption of this drug, and frankly, I think do a way better job of protecting our kids, our communities, and the health of our citizens.”
As for the Task Force's recommendation of a four plant personal production limit, Blair says there is some concern from law enforcement and municipal politicians that are managing this. Blair’s current ‘tour’ was heavily attended by both of these parties.
“The task force recommended a maximum of a four plant limit. But I will tell you, I’ve been talking to, you know, law enforcement people, municipal governments, who will ultimately bear the burden of trying to manage that, and there’s some concerns being expressed. And so we’re trying to learn from their concerns, and paying a great deal of attention to that.”
"It’s important that we put a system in place that will protect the health of Canadians. And so we’ll take the time to do it right, and I would encourage anyone else going down this path to take a similarly rigorous approach." - Bill Blair, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada.
When asked if Blair thought the process of legalization would be this complex and if Canada will have legal marijuana before Massachusetts, Nevada or California, who all passed legalization initiatives last November, he deftly dodged making any timeline predictions, saying the process will take as long as it needs to take.
“Quite frankly, we have our own parliamentary processes and, you know, just passing a Bill is the beginning of the work. You’ve got to pass very comprehensive regulatory regimes and then you’ve got to put things in place. Just passing laws isn’t enough. You’ve got to have the people who are responsible for administering that regime, the enforcement resources have to be in place, all of those things. We want to proceed carefully and cautiously.
“And again, I’ll acknowledge to you, this is a very complex issue when you start looking at all of the things that we must do in order to reduce those potential social and health harms. People have… I think there's a strong interest in changing the current system of cannabis control, because that in and of itself is an expensive regime and it’s not getting the job done for us.
"But we want to make sure we replace it with something that actually does make us healthier and is safer for our kids and our communities. And getting it right, I think merits all the time that is necessary.
“We’re moving ahead with all due diligence on the thing, but we’re being appropriately cautious and careful, making sure that we put the right regime in place and that the regulations that we put in place and the infrastructure to support it actually help us achieve our public purpose aims. They’re important.
“It’s important that we are protecting our kids. It’s important that we take the vast profits of this away from organized crime to make our communities safer. It’s important that we put a system in place that will protect the health of Canadians. And so we’ll take the time to do it right and I would encourage anyone else going down this path to take a similarly rigorous approach.”
Lastly, when the host Tom McConnell asked Blair if he will consume marijuana once legal, or if he ever has before (spoiler: no and no), Blair once again pointed out that Canada’s intention is not to encourage the consumption of marijuana.
“I’ll tell you, it is not our intent, in any shape or form, to promote the use of this drug. We want people who make the choice, adults who make the choice to use this drug, to have enough information so that they can make that choice as healthily and as socially responsible as possible so that they don’t have those negative social and health impacts that are possible for the use of this drug. I won’t be using it…”
“Not even a brownie? You won’t even consume a brownie?” interjected McConnell.
“Not even that. I have to tell you, I want to make sure people understand, it is not the government’s intention to promote the use of this drug. What our government’s intention is, is to allow adults to make well-informed choices without facing criminal prosecution on this. But at the same time, we’re also putting the things in place to make sure that we do a better job of protecting our kids.”
You can hear the full interview here.