In an interview with the Star as the task force concluded public consultations and begins to winnow recommendations to government, McLellan said there are “important lessons” to be taken from places that have already loosened marijuana laws — chief among them to introduce change slowly.
“One of the things we have learned, or we have heard . . . , from states like Washington and Colorado . . . is take your time because it’s much harder to pull something back than it is to perhaps be a little bit more restrictive out of the box and then, as you learn, you maybe loosen things up a bit,” she said Monday.
The Canadian Medical Association has urged the task force to adopt a phased-in approach toward legalizing marijuana, including possibly starting with pilot projects in smaller regions. The group representing Canada’s physicians also wants a strict minimum age of 21 for marijuana consumption with other controls on users under 25.
She said the question of whether to have separate recreational and medical marijuana regimes is “one of toughest issues.” She said the task force will have a recommendation for the government but “we haven’t come to ground on it” yet.
McLellan said no matter how much planning all levels of government do, it is clear “there will be surprises” that will require government to adapt any regime. She said she was not speaking for the task force as a whole but said it has learned from approaches adopted by other jurisdictions, as well as from a series of domestic consultations.
Any system that lifts criminal sanctions on marijuana and legalizes sales must be a “robust regulatory system” accompanied by “very robust and co-ordinated public education campaigns focused on public health messaging” — for parents and schools about the impacts of marijuana use on children, she said.
And all levels of government must be closely work together — with some experts recommending a national co-ordinating agency that would act as “an early warning system” for developments that will require the system to change, she said.
In Colorado, lawmakers did not foresee the popularity and explosive growth of edible marijuana products — in chocolate, lollipops, candies or gummy bears. McLellan said the state didn’t have rules around advertising, around whether producers could make “THC-infused lollipops or jujubes that were particularly attractive to children.” The state didn’t require, for example, producers to “score the chocolate bar and on the label, require people to see how much THC was in each one of those squares,” she said.
“They were surprised, they were caught off guard by how edibles as opposed to the smoked product, how quickly the edibles grew,” McLellan said.
“That’s part of a message the task force wants to share not only with the government of Canada, but with Canadians and other levels of government which is don’t box yourself in, and create the impression what we put in place initially is the whole story because it won’t be.”
McLellan acknowledged the legalization agenda “poses problems for countries and individuals beyond our border.” Canada’s signature is on three international law treaties that require criminalization of marijuana. And while four states — Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Colorado along with the District of Columbia have legalized access, U.S. federal law means admitted or convicted marijuana users are barred from entry.
Yet McLellan said the Canadian government has “an important narrative” articulated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and in the Liberal party platform — that “there’s going to be strict regulation. And that should be very reassuring to the international community.”
McLellan “never thought it was going to be simple.”
Still, she said she has realized after several weeks of travelling to other jurisdictions, holding expert roundtables, and receiving some 30,000 submissions (about 500 from organizations) that it is a massively complicated project.
“The word legalization is a big word, it’s an easy word to say, but when you start to deconstruct what that means for Canadian society as we from prohibition to legalization, the complexity of the issue I think is what has surprised me the most.”
The government is working backwards from a self-imposed deadline to introduce legislation sometime in the 2017 spring session of parliament, which goes into June, and has given the task force until Nov. 30 to report.
The task force contracted Hill and Knowlton to assess the submissions received. The agency has analyzed 25 per cent of them, and gave an interim report in Ottawa Saturday. McLellan said a majority of the submissions is in favour of “moving from a prohibitory model towards legalization” with a “distinct minority” opposed to legalization.