Medical cannabis at Bedrocan, a licensed producer in Canada. (Photo by Anthony Tuccitto/VICE News)
Canada's long-awaited announcement of when the weed legalization process will finally begin — spring of 2017 — is being received with cautious optimism from licensed producers, advocates, and legal experts, most of whom are surprised by the ambitious timeline.Canada's Health Minister Jane Philpott revealed when the legislation would be introduced at a special session of the UN General assembly in New York on Wednesday morning, where delegates have gathered to review the UN's 2009 action plan on drugs.
The session was requested by Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala, which are struggling with a rise in drug-related violence.Divisions among member countries were immediately apparent — while some take the more liberal approaches of legalization and decriminalization, others still favor dealing with drug traffickers by death penalty.In fact, legalizing marijuana would mean violating three global treaties on drug use signed by previous Canadian governments, although there is nothing stopping Canada from ignoring the conventions altogether. And there is not much the UN's International Narcotics Control Board can do."I'm both surprised and not surprised by the timeline," said Ronan Levi of Canvas RX, which describes itself as a marketplace and information resource for medical marijuana users.Given all the levels of government and agencies involved, "achieving coherence and alignment in such a short time frame is aggressive," said Levy. "It is a very short window to get everything together."But considering recent Canadian court decisions that are reframing the medical marijuana landscape, as well as the proliferation of illegal dispensaries across the country, Levy welcomed the government's ambitious timeline."Otherwise, they might lose control of the situation," he said.
Philpott reiterated the Liberal government's promise that the framework will keep "pot out of the hands of children and profits out of the hands of criminals."
"We will work with law enforcement partners to encourage appropriate and proportionate criminal justice measures," she said."We know it is impossible to arrest our way out of this problem."That remark, although made in a global context, is once again raising questions about how law enforcement, courts, and prosecutors should handle marijuana-related crimes going forward, considering that they may not be crimes in the near future.An RCMP spokesperson told VICE News that the agency has "the mandate to enforce the current laws related to trafficking and possession of drugs," including enforcement of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
For that reason, NDP leader Tom Mulcair criticized the Liberals for not legalizing marijuana as soon as they took office, suggesting they decriminalize the drug as soon as possible and address regulations surrounding production afterwards."There are thousands and thousands of mostly young people who will have criminal records for the rest of their lives because Justin Trudeau did not respect his promise to legalize marijuana as soon as he took office," he said.Lawyer Hugo Alves told VICE News there is now "abundant" case law where judges made discretionary determinations on sentences for crimes like simple possession, for example, based on how much public resources and tax dollars would be used in the process.
"Both social attitudes and jurisprudence point to a prevailing view in our society that incarceration for simple possession charges of cannabis is an unacceptable way to regulate," he said.Law enforcement has jurisdiction on whether or not to arrest people, and prosecutors also have some discretion about whether or not they'll lay charges, Alves pointed out.Vancouver-based lawyer Kirk Tousaw said British Columbia has already been seeing a trend toward less enforcements and lighter sanctions in the courts for pot-related crimes.
"Some judges are recognizing that the public has been way ahead of politicians on this issue and adjusting things like sentences accordingly, as they should," he said. "We're past the point where we should be arresting people for simple possession at all, and certainly law enforcement has the discretion not to arrest.""Right now, if you're aggressively pursuing marijuana prohibition, you're on the wrong side of history," he said.David Brown of Lift Cannabis predicts "the nuts and bolts of how that works out at the provincial and even local level will be a process that won't be complete for potentially years."While more work has likely been done behind the scenes, thus far, the only public face attached to the legalization file is former Toronto police chief and current parliamentary secretary to the justice minister Bill Blair, who is in New York with Philpott.Blair told reporters on Tuesday that regulations will address all aspects of the marijuana industry from production to recreational consumption.Before the legislation can be introduced, the government will have to appoint the rest of the task force on marijuana, conduct consultations with stakeholders, and figure out what the roles of municipal and provincial governments — some of which have already spoken out about how they'd like to see legalization play out — will be.Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk
'Right now, if you're aggressively pursuing marijuana prohibition, you're on the wrong side of history.'