“We understand the impact that those criminal records have had on people,” Blair said. “At that point in time, we’ll have the opportunity to deal with those records in an appropriate way.”
Legalization, a key plank in the Liberals’ campaign in the 2015 election, is a revolution that’s been years in the making.
And it may be a few days yet before the effects of the relaxed cannabis laws start to be seen — and smelt. That’s because in Ontario at least, storefront locations selling cannabis won’t open until April so for now residents will have to order it on-line for delivery by Canada Post. Postal workers Tuesday announced rotating strikes starting next Monday, which could snarl pot deliveries.
The legalization of cannabis has social and legal implications and for the Liberals, potential political peril if it goes awry with the next federal election now less than a year away.
Liberals privately concede that the year ahead is full of unknowns. How many Canadians will want to try cannabis now that it’s legal? Will legalization truly undercut the black market for marijuana, one of the stated goals for the endeavour? What will be the impact on young people?
On the eve of legalization, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet ministers were quick to tout their rationale for the move, “to protect our kids and to keep the profits out of the pockets of organized crime.
“By controlling it, by legalizing it, we’re going to make it more difficult for young people to access and we’re going to ensure that criminal organizations and street gangs don’t make millions, billions of dollars of profits every year,” Trudeau said Tuesday as he headed into a cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill.
But some are already sounding the alarm. Ontario Premier Doug Ford accused Trudeau of “rushing legal cannabis out of the door” before police have a reliable machine to test for drug-impaired driving.
In a Monday editorial, the Canadian Medical Association Journal cautioned what it called a “national, uncontrolled experiment in which the profits of cannabis producers and tax revenues are squarely pitched against the health of Canadians.”
“I think there’s going to be a lot of unintended consequences that have not been properly thought through,” said Conservative MP Tony Clement (Parry Sound—Muskoka).
“I know that a lot of people psychologically may be ready for legalization. I get that. It doesn’t mean that all of the wheels of justice and of protection of society are in place,” said Clement.
He accused the Liberals of over promising in their vows to cut organized crime, protect children and ensure the readiness of front-line police officers. “I don’t want the public to be fooled into thinking that everything is taken care of,” he said.
But Blair said the federal government has worked with provinces, police forces and other stakeholders to ensure a “strong regulatory framework” is in place for the legal sale of weed.
“For the first time starting (Wednesday) there will be competition in the marketplace and for adult consumers who choose to use cannabis, they will have a socially responsible, safer and legal choice,” said Blair (Scarborough Southwest).
“There’s still a great deal of work to do and to make sure that we achieve our objectives of protecting our kids, displacing that illicit market. That work will continue apace,” he said.
That work — involving several hundred people hired to help administer and enforce the new pot regime, also includes gathering data and educating the public.
Starting Wednesday a new volley of ads will begin about the health risks, targeting parents and young people. And it has promised millions for public health education campaigns.
The advertising started to roll out on 2017 with advertising initially aimed at parents, to guide conversations with children about the risks of pot. A federal official said it then shifted to educating about the road safety risks of using cannabis, before shifting to travel advisories and border issues.
The 2017 budget allocated $46 million and the 2018 budget set aside $82 million over five years for health education ($62.5 million for community-based health promotion, and $20 million for the Mental Health Commission and the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse).
As well, Blair said work continues among federal departments towards the legalization of the sale of edibles, which he said could take another year.
In question period, Clement pressed the government on whether police forces across the country are ready to enforce impaired driving laws.
But one government official told the Star Tuesday that police officers and the courts have been enforcing drug impaired driving offences for decades. “They are well-versed in driving impaired cases. It’s not new,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Police officers who suspect drivers of impaired while under the influence of cannabis will rely on field sobriety tests and in some cases, oral fluid samples. If officers have reasonable grounds to believe a driver is over the legal limit, a 12-step process known as the drug recognition evaluation is done to determine the degree of impairment and the likely drug.
The rate of drug impaired driving was on the rise even before legalization, jumping 10 per cent in 2017 while alcohol-impaired driving offences reported by police declined by 5 per cent, according to Statistics Canada.
Drug impaired driving remained low compared to drinking and driving but federal officials say they are worried that younger people in particular “aren’t quite getting the message” about the risks of driving after consuming cannabis.
Files by Tonda MacCharles and Rob Ferguson
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier