On the government's legalization objectives

With the recent announcement of the final composition of the government's Task Force, the corresponding discussion paper revealed the nature of the upcoming consultations, including the Task Force's...

With the recent announcement of the final composition of the government's Task Force, the corresponding discussion paper revealed the nature of the upcoming consultations, including the Task Force's objectives. As stated in the document, these objectives are to:

1 - Protect young Canadians by keeping marijuana out of the hands of children and youth.

2 - Keep profits out of the hands of criminals, particularly organized crime.

3 - Reduce the burdens on police and the justice system associated with simple possession of marijuana offences.

4 - Prevent Canadians from entering the criminal justice system and receiving criminal records for simple marijuana possession offences.

5 - Ensure Canadians are well-informed through sustained and appropriate public health campaigns, and for youth in particular, ensure that risks are understood.

6 - Establish and enforce a system of strict production, distribution and sales, taking a public health approach, with regulation of quality and safety (e.g., child-proof packaging, warning labels), restriction of access, and application of taxes, with programmatic support for addiction treatment, mental health support, and education programs.

7 - Continue to provide access to quality-controlled marijuana for medical purposes consistent with federal policy and Court decisions.

8 - Conduct ongoing data collection, including gathering baseline data, to monitor the impact of the new framework.

The government record on each one of these objectives is abysmal, not only under Stephen Harper, but under the Liberals before him as well. While these objectives seem fairly common sense, many of them are inconsistent, either within themselves, or when in the context and tone of the government representative's sound-bytes.

1 - Protect young Canadians by keeping marijuana out of the hands of children and youth.

We have data that, while correlational, certainly disputes the 'facts' touted by the opponents of Cannabis, and of dispensaries in general. Those of us older than dispensaries in Canada usually encountered cannabis for the first time in high school. This is becoming less the case in jurisdictions with dispensaries. While opponents of dispensaries have decried that dispensaries make it easier for youth to obtain cannabis, the facts do not bear this out. With an almost two-decade long experience with dispensaries in Vancouver (a hundred of them for the last few years) there have been 2? 3? raids on dispensaries due to complaints of selling to minors. The last time, Don Briere (often cited as an example of an irresponsible potrepeneur) fired the employee immediately. This has been a serious issue for most dispensary operators, and they have done an effective job of addressing it.

In 2009, the McCreary Institute began its Adolescent Health Surveys in British Columbia. While it noted that cannabis use among youth had already been declining for a decade before the survey,  the results showed that 30% of youth in BC had used cannabis, and the most common age of first use cited as 13-14. In Vancouver however, the youth was lower, at 24%.

In 2013, with the number of dispensaries in BC well into double digits, that number had dropped to 17% in Vancouver, where youth were waiting a whole year longer to first try cannabis. While one could argue that this data does not prove the decline was due to the proliferation of dispensaries, it certainly shows that that proliferation did not lead to an increase in youth use. Of 17% of youth in Vancouver that tried cannabis, the survey did not specify authorized medical use, so the number of rec users may have dropped even lower.

Despite that, the Liberals have not sounded too friendly towards these dispensaries, and no offence to the country's liquor stores, but most of us from coast to coast to coast tried alcohol both before we were legal, and before we tried cannabis.

2 - Keep profits out of the hands of criminals, particularly organized crime.

Organized crime is the highlight here, and this again is something that early dispensaries in particular have been very conscious of. What isn't distinguished here is criminal records for cannabis offences, nor is there any attempt to compensate those that have been unfairly targeted by the war on drugs. It may be a separate point, but part of keeping profits out of 'particularly' the hands of organized crime first means you have to identify those organizations. This objective appears to skip that step. Instead, it lumps organized crime, and anyone with any record, into a group that will be excluded from what will be a legal industry. This is a nuance of Vancouver's dispensary regulations that many missed: the security checks were not criminal record checks, they were police information checks. They weren't looking for charges (which might have included cannabis ones) they were looking for known associates. Without this distinction, those groups who have been overly targeted during prohibition will continue to be unfairly treated because of it.

3 - Reduce the burdens on police and the justice system associated with simple possession of marijuana offences.

This is something some police have been asking for for a long time, and is a welcome change. Later in the paper though, the issue of possession limits is raised, and what those limits are may have a profound effect on the government's ability to meet this objective. Regulations yet to be seen around personal cultivation may also impact the success of this point. In addition, while possession arrests decrease, there may well be an increase in public smoking tickets.

4 - Prevent Canadians from entering the criminal justice system and receiving criminal records for simple marijuana possession offences.

The government is already failing this objective, and they're not even out of the gate. As has been the case all too often, of all our authorities, it is the courts that have provided the sanest voice on cannabis regulations. Their record holds on this issue, with some judges simply taking matters into their own hands.

5 - Ensure Canadians are well-informed through sustained and appropriate public health campaigns, and for youth in particular, ensure that risks are understood.

This might be serious a problem area. While it sounds fairly reasonable, the Harper messages on cannabis could have been summed up the same way. The devil is in the details, and given the Honourable Bill Blair's confusion between cannabis and tomatoes (the tea of one will kill you, and it's not the one that's currently illegal), it may not be an easy one to gain consensus on. Cannabis is often compared to alcohol and tobacco, but very selectively. The harms it can cause are typically closer to caffeine, as is its addictive potential, and yet, the tone of these discussions usually continues to treat cannabis as tobacco and alcohol, and this discussion paper also does so expressly. This does not represent evidence-based policy, but selective-evidence-based policy.

6 - Establish and enforce a system of strict production, distribution and sales, taking a public health approach, with regulation of quality and safety (e.g., child-proof packaging, warning labels), restriction of access, and application of taxes, with programmatic support for addiction treatment, mental health support and education programs.

When they mention addiction treatment, it sounds like they are speaking of cannabis addiction. Mental health and education all focused on cannabis, and it seems to be missing the point. While there are no similar plans in place for dealing with coffee addiction (or sugar for that matter), there is a real fear that the task force may miss the boat on this. Cannabis has been used as treatment for serious addictions to truly dangerous substances, and this fear of its own addictive potential may put a serious crimp in any plans to more fully benefit from this knowledge.

This also raises the question of where the line on medical will be drawn. Does it remain the same so as to maximize tax revenue? Or will we truly put public health first and take full advantage of all the therapeutic benefits cannabis has to offer us? And what does this do for non-medical research? Canada's hemp industry has been severely hampered by prohibition, and if we want to reap these benefits as well, this also needs to be addressed. Would education programs include cannabis skills training for underemployed sections of the workforce?

7 - Continue to provide access to quality-controlled marijuana for medical purposes consistent with federal policy and Court decisions.

The phrase 'consistent with federal policy and court decisions' is an oxymoron. Federal cannabis policy has only ever been consistent with court decisions between the time it is introduced, and the time the court first gets to decide on it. That's it. In 2013 when the Liberals unveiled their legalization position paper, it was missing any discussion of medical cannabis.

Given that the rules around medical cannabis can make or break any restrictive legalization plan, this inconsistent advice appears to reflect a failure to understand the importance of this issue.

8 - Conduct ongoing data collection, including gathering baseline data, to monitor the impact of the new framework.

Review. Okay...Not much of a point on its own, but... yes please, check to see how whatever you came up with actually works. That would be nice.

Missing completely from these objectives is any mention of other Liberal campaign platforms. Will they discuss how cannabis legalization fits with their "New Plan for a Stronger Middle Class"? Will they discuss how cannabis can help them achieve some of their stated goals, such as 'opening the door to prosperity', 'a more compassionate Canada', and 'expanding exports and opportunities'?

-Jamie Shaw

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