National Column: Heed the red flags of premature marijuana legalization

by Tim Harper

The Senate seems determined to slow the Liberal government’s timeline for marijuana legalization and Justin Trudeau seems just as determined to deliver his legalization on time – give or take a few weeks.

The prime minister will get his way, but that doesn’t mean the Senate, and Indigenous leaders, are not flagging some important issues.

Opposition Conservatives would like nothing more than to push the roll-out of legal recreational pot into an election year, the better to take political advantage of the inevitable stumbles that will come with such a momentous move.

So, their senators can find a danger under every leaf of every plant, and some of their proposed amendments or complaints can fall into the category of frivolous or vexatious.

Senate committees studying the cannabis legislation, Bill C-45, have proposed amendments to prohibit home cultivation, leaving the authority to regulate the matter of homegrown pot to the provinces.

They want the THC levels to be posted on all cannabis products, and Conservative senators have unsuccessfully pushed to have the minimum age for legal purchase raised from 18 to 21 and to limit the THC level, keeping it much lower for younger consumers. It also tried and failed to have the legislation (except for provisions which prohibit promotion of cannabis products) take effect one year after a companion bill on cannabis-impaired driving came into force.

But there are more substantive recommendations.

The Senate Aboriginal Peoples Committee has called for implementation to be delayed for up to a year for a reason that should make Liberals wince: that the government hasn’t consulted properly with Indigenous communities where youth may be more vulnerable to drug abuse or with Indigenous leadership on revenue sharing. In essence, that committee said legalized cannabis promises more pain with no financial gain for Indigenous communities.

The Assembly of First Nations, already showing its impatience with the speed with which Trudeau’s reconciliation promises are manifesting themselves in concrete policies, raised the same matter this week. It passed a resolution calling on First Nations to share in the marijuana excise tax that is now shared solely between the provinces and the federal government, and it vowed to lobby the government for this change.

There is no reason such consultation should delay the legislation, but Trudeau risks Indigenous pushback if their communities cannot share in revenue.

Senators have also raised an issue that deserves further attention, the potential peril for Canadian travellers at the U.S. border.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says no laws will be changed – it will still be illegal for pot to be taken over the border in either direction – but Canadians should remain vigilant because they can be barred from the U.S. for admitting to marijuana use, even if it is legal. It would not be paranoid to believe more marijuana questions at the U.S. border might follow marijuana legalization on this side.

The Senate committee on national security requested the government table a plan to protect Canadian travellers at the border and the chair of the committee, former OPP commissioner and Trudeau appointee Gwen Boniface, said the government must continue to make diplomatic overtures to Washington.

Goodale says he is doing just that and has had conversations with past and present Donald Trump homeland security chiefs to ensure the U.S. understands the reasoning behind the legislative change.

His office downplays concerns, saying marijuana use already affects border operations because one in eight Canadians use cannabis, yet 400,000 people move between the two countries each day, virtually seamlessly.

Trudeau Thursday promised full speed ahead on his timetable, but he should be pushed on another matter that the Senate has ignored.

His government is illogically using resources and clogging court systems by charging people with pot possession.

Goodale’s office said Thursday the government will study solutions to make things fairer for those who had been charged with possession of small amounts of marijuana.

In the meantime, as chronicled in this newspaper [Toronto Star], those being charged are disproportionately young, Black and Indigenous.

The current pardon system is a mess and the cost of $631 in processing costs alone has driven down the number of applications. The government knows that because it consulted Canadians on it and heard the complaints.

In the meantime, it makes little sense to keep preaching the law is the law when you are hellbent on changing it.

Tim Harper is a former Star reporter who is a current freelance columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @nutgraf1
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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