Trudeau to make pot legal while cracking down on impaired drivers and pushers

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From left: Diane Lebouthiller, Ralph Goodale, Jody Wilson-Raybould, Jane Philpott, Bill Blair

The Trudeau government wants you to know that it does not want to encourage people to use marijuana. To make that point clear, on Thursday, when the government tabled legislation to legalize marijuana, it also introduced new, tough penalties for drug and alcohol impaired driving and for selling or giving marijuana to children.

The Liberals plan to give police the right to stop virtually any driver and then administer a drug test. Currently, the forces of law and order have to reasonably suspect drug or alcohol use before compelling anyone to submit to such testing. 

The Liberals also intend to also make the act of giving or selling pot to anyone under the age of 18 a crime punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment.

The politics of this are clear. Trudeau has to respect his campaign promise to legalize weed, but he knows there are lots of parents and grandparents across the land -- including this writer -- who worry about an increase in the rate of impaired driving and who do not like the idea of their grandchildren being exposed at too early an age to drugs, even soft drugs.

On Thursday, the Liberals marshalled four cabinet ministers, one parliamentary secretary, and a phalanx of public servants to make this announcement.

The politicians on the stage included Ralph Goodale from Public Safety; Health Minister Jane Philpott; Diane Lebouthillier, minister of national revenue; Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and Wilson-Raybould's parliamentary secretary, former Toronto police chief Bill Blair.

All of them had one over-riding message: We are doing this for the children. As Blair put it:  "Too many of our kids currently have access to cannabis, and we know that criminal prohibition has failed to protect our kids and our communities, and we need a new approach."

The new legislation establishes a maximum legal quantity of pot that a person can possess, 30 grams, puts limits on the type of advertising those selling marijuana may use -- no celebrities and no messages making pot smoking cool for kids -- and lays out a framework for regulation of the legal marijuana industry. But the legislation leaves much to be decided in the future, mostly in consultation with the provinces and territories.

When confronted with these thorny and complex not-yet-resolved issues, Liberal politicians kept going back to the kids.

"As I've travelled across the country speaking to people about this," the former tough-talking police chief said, "I have found an overwhelming consensus in every part of the country we've got to do a better job of protecting our kids."

The Liberals argue that while other jurisdictions, such as Colorado and Washington State, have taken a commercial and regulatory approach to legalization, they have chosen to work within, in Blair's words, a "public health" framework.

Wilson-Raybould added that the federal pot initiative will be an exercise in "cooperative federalism."  Much of the on-the-ground implementation of the new rules will fall to the provinces and territories. For instance, while the legislation stipulates a maximum possession amount of 30 grams, provinces will be free to set a lower limit. And while the new law would set the legal age for marijuana use at 18, provinces will have the right to put it higher.

What if provinces try undermine legalization?

Journalists wondered what the federal government would do if some provinces were to try an end run around legalization by setting the maximum amount at, say, one gram and the minimum age at, for example, 75.  Officials, who gave a not-for-attribution briefing prior to the politicians' news conference, explained that if provinces were to use such tactics to, in effect, sabotage the new legislation, the federal government is prepared to facilitate online and mail order purchase of marijuana. Those unnamable officials also affirmed that recreational marijuana sales, overseen and controlled by the provinces, will, like sales of medical marijuana, be subject to the HST.

The politicians were less categorical on both points, but repeated a number of times that -- again, in the interests of the children -- it would be good if the provinces and municipalities were to work collaboratively with the federal government to implement the new legislative framework for weed.

At first blush, the provinces do not seem overly thrilled with Thursday's announcement. Some, such as Quebec, argue that the Trudeau Liberals are downloading a raft of responsibilities onto the provinces, without commensurate additional cash.

Provinces, Quebec complains, will have to train police in new drug detection techniques, formulate a retail sales framework for legal marijuana, and find ways to mitigate against the increased risk of children getting their hands on soon-to-be legal pot.

While it agrees with the principle of legalizing marijuana, the Quebec government says it is concerned that the federal government has yet to offer the provinces any additional monies for the many new responsibilities Thursday's legislative package imposes on them.

Conservatives are discreetly quiet; NDP, critically supportive

As for the opposition parties in Ottawa -- the official opposition Conservatives are, so far, maintaining a careful silence. That discretion probably reflects the party's internal divisions. Leadership candidates who have pronounced themselves have come down on different sides of the pot debate. Kellie Leitch, for instance, promises to repeal the legalization legislation. Many of her fellow candidates do not agree.

The NDP, for its part, does not significantly differ from the Liberal approach, although NDPers continue to urge the government to put a stop to marijuana prosecutions under the current law.

It causes great and unnecessary harm, the NDP's justice critic Alistair MacGregor says, to give thousand of Canadians criminal records for engaging in an activity that will soon be legal. 

MacGregor even goes so far as to say that, given all of its still-to-be-determined elements, the Liberals could easily have enacted the main features of this legislation 18 months ago, and worked out the details later. 

It is worth noting, however, that NDPers do not criticize the increased police powers and criminal sanctions announced on Thursday.

The NDP, like the Trudeau government, is acutely aware that while most Canadians may not believe possessing small amounts of marijuana should be a crime, a good many still have big concerns, and fears, about the potential consequences of full-blown legalization. 

Image: Karl Nerenberg

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