Earlier tonight, VICE Canada hosted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and MP Bill Blair for a town hall to raise some questions and concerns about the Liberal government's plans to legalize the recreational production, distribution, and use of marijuana. In addition to reaffirming his government's commitment to the public safety of children, here are the five big takeaways from the event where Trudeau took questions from VICE senior writer Manisha Krishnan and Head of Content Patrick McGuire, industry insiders, and people caught up in the current criminal court system.
1. There are no plans to fight the opioid crisis by legalizing or decriminalizing more drugs
In an emotionally-charged exchange near the end of the town hall, Trudeau was confronted by Zoe Dodd, a harm reduction worker on the front lines of Canada's opioid epidemic who called the amount of overdose deaths in the last 18 months a "national disaster." Citing the example of Portugal, where drug use has been decriminalized for more than a decade, she asked the prime minister if he would decriminalize other drugs—especially opioids—as a matter of public safety.
Trudeau replied that his government would not do this, saying that they only got a mandate to legalize marijuana. He also acknowledged that although "we need to do more," the Liberals were softening the policies of the Harper administration with regards to prescription heroin and safe injection sites. Bill Blair also voiced his perspective that "the evidence does not necessarily show that [mass] decriminalization works," and that the government should instead focus on providing treatment, rehabilitation, and front-line services.
The prime minister said the government needs to do more on the file but avoided making any promises.
2. Pardons won't be happening anytime soon
When asked by Malik Scott, a young man facing criminal charges for possession of marijuana, if there were any plans to pardon people currently charged under laws due to be changed, the prime minister was largely evasive. He related to the crowd that his younger brother Michel, who died in an avalanche in 1998, was charged with marijuana possession not long before his death, but the family was confident he would bear the charges due to his father's influence and their access to legal resources. Trudeau acknowledged that the justice system is often inequitable in this way, particularly for visible minorities like Scott.
Despite this admission, Trudeau remained largely noncommittal about plans for pardons, reparations, or even an apology to anyone convicted of marijuana charges under prohibition. Any future amnesty is TBD for an indeterminate time after legalization.
3. The medical marijuana regime will stay the same
Trudeau was emphatic that whatever else is going on with the legalization of recreational marijuana use, "the current medical marijuana regime will remain as-is." The prime minister also suggested that, since many people currently illegally use medical marijuana services for recreational purposes, legalization will free up the strain on the medical sector and enable new research into the medical uses of cannabis—including as a substitute for opiates in the case of chronic pain.
4. There will be room for smaller players…but Big Weed will rule
While the prime minister admitted that a lot of production of recreational cannabis will likely be handled by larger corporate operations, he was also emphatic that there will be room for smaller producers as well. He likened it to the alcohol industry, pointing out that while a lot of beer is produced by large brewers, Canadians also enjoy microbrews. The government is also actively encouraging the participation of Indigenous peoples in legal production.
However, Trudeau also emphasized that there was no guarantee that any small producers who have previously been convicted of possession or trafficking will be given licenses for production under the new framework. All licensing decisions would be handled on a case-by-case basis. He also acknowledged that although edibles are currently legal for medical use, their production and sale would not be considered for recreational regulation until sometime in the future.
5. The provinces will be making the real decisions
As repeatedly emphasized by the prime minister, "the provinces have the authority to introduce legislation that works for them." Specifically, provincial and territorial governments will be responsible for setting and enforcing their own regulatory regimes where the minimum age of purchase, maximum sentences for offenses, and method of distribution, with the end goal of ensuring a "well-regulated, safe supply."
In the event that a province or territory does not introduce a regulatory framework, Trudeau promised that Canadians living in those areas will still be able to obtain marijuana legally, although he did not specify how.
Bonus round: Trudeau does not want to be known as a pothead
Trudeau began the town hall by saying that he was a boring partier, who rarely ever touched weed in his youth and told us the well-known story of a dinner party several years ago (before he was Liberal leader but while he was an MP) where he smoked a joint that was passed around. He said he's more a beer and bourbon guy, particularly Jack Daniels—which famously calls itself a Tennessee Whiskey, but who's judging.
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