Ottawa’s dangerous hustle to legalize weed

The Standing Committee on Health is hearing 100 testimonies in five days. The big takeaway so far? Maybe it’s going a little too fast.

marijuana leaf Canadian flag

It’s nothing short of a sea change in public policy, one with profound implications for everything from Canadian culture and health to border security, road safety and even international relations: legalizing marijuana. Two people hold a modified design of the Canadian flag with a marijuana leaf in in place of the maple leaf during the “420 Toronto” rally in Toronto, April 20, 2016. (Mark Blinch/CP)

Next up, the witness from Washington state. Rick Garza, director of the state’s cannabis and liquor board, was invited to a committee meeting in Ottawa to explain his region’s cannabis laws in entirety, from branding to banking to the regulation of infused gummy bears, and to sum up all such Washington wisdom through a video call in 10 minutes. Go.

“How do you tell a story in 10 minutes?” Garza complained. “I think one of the things we did, learning from Colorado, is take our time. As everyone was screaming at us to issue licenses, we took over a year to set our regulations in place.”

While the Liberals leap to legalize marijuana by July 2018, prompting chiefs of police to ask for delays, even the meeting agendas are brisk. The Standing Committee on Health is hearing 100 testimonies in five days this week, from pharmaceutical companies to Indigenous groups to convenience stores. But experts warn of complications to come—revenue will be low, packaging will need to be childproof, black markets will persist—and in fact the American witnesses admit to selfish excitement to learn from Canada’s mistakes. If the federal government wants to be first to successfully regulate 420 in the G20, it must … slow … down.

“There’s a great frustration on the opposition side that the government wants us to jam this into one week,” said Conservative Colin Carrie during the committee session on Tuesday. He compared legalization to flying the plane while building it—”except I don’t see anybody piloting the plane.”

Americans, too, warn of the narcotic naivety. “It’s tempting to see marijuana as a double-fiscal win,” said Sam Kamin, a law professor at the University of Denver who testified Tuesday, explaining the expectation to profit from sales and reduce police costs. However, Colorado only makes about $200 million per year on marijuana sales, compared to its $24 billion total revenue. When it first regulated the drug in 2014, the state didn’t even have enough supply to take advantage of the demand—“it was definitely rationing the first while,” said Kamin—and still today the black market controls 30 per cent of sales. “While there are good reasons for moving away from marijuana prohibition, enriching state coffers is not one of them.”

Four plants, up to one metre in height, is the proposed limit for home growing under the cannabis bill. But what about a five-metre plant growing horizontally? “You could have one plant that’s the size of a Christmas tree,” noted Marc-Boris St-Maurice, regional director of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “I do find it a little humorous when you think of that one metre and law enforcement going around with a tape measure, saying, ‘oh I’m sorry, you’re one centimetre over.’ Are they going to cut that centimetre off and seize it?” he wondered. “It is a little Kafka-esque, if you ask me.”

If you ask other experts, branding is the bigger problem. Some American states permit colourful cannabis packaging as they do for alcohol, but ban promotions in flyers or storefronts—“Brands, yes. Advertising, no,” said Kamin of Colorado. He said he was “shocked by the prevalence” of edibles and liquid forms of marijuana (about half the market) but they must participate in the sales because “producing them on the black market using butane or other extraction formats could lead to explosions all over Colorado.”

Safety concerns come also from impaired driving; without a saliva or breath test technology yet available, police in Washington and Colorado bring suspected high drivers into health facilities for blood tests.

Emergency room visits for 0 to 8-year-olds increased in Colorado after regulation, suggesting accidental consumption, and calls to poison control increased in Washington. “Gummie bears, lollipops, candy are actually being distributed by the black and grey market,” Garza said.

Should Canadians be pardoned for past marijuana-related crimes? “We need some sort of reconciliation,” said St-Maurice of NORML. The cannabis bill suggests that people with criminal records won’t be eligible for growing licenses. “It’s paradoxical and nonsensical,” said St-Maurice. “We find ourselves banging at the gates of the palace door.”

And should veterinarians be able to give marijuana to pets? What will happen when certain publicly-traded marijuana companies crash? Questions were left outstanding as men in black and grey suits zipped through discussions of black and grey markets. The audience included a Mexican-Canadian biochemical engineer, and a medical marijuana grower wearing a basketball jersey with 90 grams of hash in the pocket of his shorts (the day earlier, he says building security called police because he didn’t have his prescription with him).

Garza tried to address the problem of bank transactions, explaining that Washington has credited four banks to handle marijuana sales—“they often tie into our traceability system … to see if that meets up with what’s happening with their bank accounts, so—”

But Committee chair Bill Casey interrupted. “Mr. Garza, I’ll have to ask you to wind up,” he said. Mr. Garza was out of time.

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