Of all of the promises the Liberals made in the lead-up to last year’s election, one would have thought that legalizing marijuana would be an easy one to keep, as it would be pretty easy to do.
The basis for marijuana’s illegality in Canada is its inclusion in several schedules of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA). If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is serious about his election promise, he should take the obvious first step and propose legislation that would remove marijuana from the CDSA. Regardless of what marijuana legalization scheme is dreamed up over the next couple of years, this will need to happen. The sooner it does, the better.
Instead, the prime minister has appointed former Toronto police chief Bill Blair to head a panel that will work with cabinet and consult with the provinces to create a “strong regulatory framework.” It has all the potential for lethargy and muddled-thinking that the government has been warning us that pot causes for so many years.
Throughout Canadian history, these sorts of big consultations usually end in frustration. In 1969, prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s government created the five-person Commission of Inquiry Into The Non-Medical Use Of Drugs, headed by future Supreme Court of Canada Justice Gerald Le Dain. After four years, it recommended that simple possession of marijuana be decriminalized and suggested broad shifts in Canada’s policies towards drug users. The result? Nothing happened.
Our current anti-drug legislation was another big federal project designed to reshape Canada’s attitudes toward drug enforcement, which was started by prime minister Brian Mulroney and finally passed by the Chrétien government in 1997. It was also a conspicuous failure. Another report by the Special Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs in 2003, which also took years to produce, likewise burned too dimly to make any impact.
A few people have suggested that Canada will need to go through the United Nations before changing its drug policies because it adheres to international treaties requiring marijuana possession to remain a criminal offence. This is silly. The same international treaties Canada adheres to feature signatories such as Portugal, which decriminalized all drugs, and the United States, where marijuana is legal in several states. The only major obstacle at present to legalizing marijuana is a lack of will to take a political risk.
Establishing a legal framework for marijuana is a good idea. But if the past is any indication, this current approach will probably involve too much huffing and puffing about Canadian drug laws, and not enough meaningful action. Almost by default, a consultation process in a federal system like Canada’s takes years to complete. Case in point: even the virtually unanimously supported idea that we should get rid of Canada’s absurd laws preventing inter-provincial wine sales has had virtually no effect, four years after being introduced in the House of Commons in 2012. There is nothing to suggest building a complex scheme for purchasing marijuana will take any less time.
In the meantime, the simple legislative answer is to legalize it. Critics might say that marijuana would be unregulated and untaxed in the interim, and broadly available to minors. This sounds scary, until you realize that this is the same situation we have now. Legalizing it would only mean that we’d no longer be tossing people in jail for something that will be made legal anyway, and will help clear up the legal haze surrounding Canada’s medical marijuana laws. It would also create an impetus for provincial governments to quickly establish their own regulatory schemes and regulations, such as age restrictions.
Lastly, it’s worth pointing out that marijuana’s very illegality stems from a simple 1923 act of Parliament, when it was added to the Opium Act, a piece of racially motivated legislation aimed at Chinese immigrants. Since then, decades of bad science, ineffective government action and a lack of political courage have seen a persistent unwillingness to undo that simple mistake. Trudeau should not risk continuing decades of failure on this issue, and instead take a decisive step to do away with the status quo.