Bringing the buzz kill to marijuana legalization

Anne McLellan’s vision hardly looks like a great leap forward for drug use, Paul Wells writes.

by Paul Wells

Reading the 106-page report of the Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation, with its determinedly bland cover design and its epically drab title, “A Framework For the Legalization and Regulation of Cannabis in Canada,” it’s hard to shake the urge to blow off a little steam by sparking up a great big bowl of

Whoa! Wrong attitude! Sorry about that. Lord forbid anyone suggest that the point of legalizing marijuana in Canada is to increase the amount of fun anybody might be having.

In a sense, this is easy to understand. The Trudeau Liberals are facing very little effective criticism on their promise to legalize pot from people who think they are being too slow, stodgy or old-fashioned about it all.

Of course there are Canadians who think pot should be legalized yesterday, and that it should be promoted and celebrated as a universal panacea. But pot activists tend not to be a formidably organized voting bloc, for reasons of general lethargy and perhaps an occasional serious case of the munchies. And at least one, the Vancouver pot evangelist Jodie Emery, actually sought to run as a Liberal candidate in the last election.

So nobody’s saying “go faster, be bolder.” On the other hand, the Liberals have faced constant criticism from the Conservatives, elevated concern from many parents, as well as non-trivial nervousness in some immigrant communities over health and safety concerns, hypothetical increased pot use among children and widespread cultural taboos against pot use.

It was a stroke of genius, then, for Health Minister Jane Philpott to recruit Anne McLellan, a former minister of justice and health in Liberal governments a generation ago, to report on the implications of legalizing pot.

McLellan has made a career radiating the impression of superb competence, combined with the uncanny ability to measurably decrease the amount of whimsy in a room just by walking into it.

Her report is custom-designed to harsh the mightiest of buzzes. It contains zero occurrences of the word “enjoy,” 11 of the word “recreational” and 168 of the word “risk.” Reading it, one envisions approaching a government-sanctioned wacky tobacky dispensary in more or less the same manner and perhaps even with the same bulky wardrobe that Jeremy Renner used to approach Iraqi-made explosive devices in The Hurt Locker.

The report, from McLellan and eight other panel members, goes to awesome lengths to reassure the nervous by envisaging a Canada in which recreational (but risky!) marijuana has entered the realm of legality with only the most tenuous and exquisitely regulated toehold.

To wit: The national minimum age of pot purchase would be 18. In some provinces, including probably Ontario, it’d be higher, to match drinking laws. There would be “comprehensive restrictions to the advertising and promotion” of cannabis. Plain packaging would be required. “Promotion that encourages excessive consumption” would face sanctions. What kind of sanctions? “Strict.”

“Mixed” products, like cannabis with alcohol or cannabis with tobacco, would be prohibited. Potent pot would be priced and taxed with an eye toward discouraging use. Public education campaigns would also spread the word that marijuana is, at least in certain circumstances, bad for you.

Many, many stakeholder meetings would lead to the elaboration of “workplace impairment policies.” Many more meetings would “address . . . determinants of problematic cannabis use, such as mental illness and social marginalization.”

Marijuana would not be sold in the same place as alcohol or tobacco, “wherever possible.” Sorry, LCBO!

Anyone tempted to grow their own would be limited to four plants whose height would be capped at 100 centimetres each.

I could go on. They certainly do. “We have discovered that the regulation of cannabis will touch on every aspect of our society,” McLellan and her colleagues write. Not the use of cannabis, or its existence, note, but its regulation. Police until now have had a simple rule to apply – Hey, do you have marijuana? Well, you shouldn’t – along with considerable leeway in applying it. Their life, if the feds implement all or most of McLellan’s report, is about to become more complicated.

To what end? Look, I have considerable sympathy for the notion that a criminal record should not await recreational pot users. But the regime McLellan and her colleagues envision hardly looks like a great leap forward for relaxed and libertarian attitudes toward drug use.

Justin Trudeau ran on a promise to legalize and regulate the non-medical use of marijuana. He is well on the way to delivering. But voters who heard only the first part of that promise are in for a surprise.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer. His column appears Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2016-Torstar Syndication Services