Canada, Cannabis and Trudeau: Working from Tea Leaves

Justin Trudeau is the new Prime Minister of Canada. He earned that office after an election campaign in which marijuana legalization was, explicitly, a contested issue.

Trudeau has broad support in the new parliament, 184 of 338 seats, so he could press for marijuana reform legislation. Still, legislation takes time, and there has already been a good deal of speculation about measures that Trudeau might take even before any such bill could pass. For example, he might instruct the Public Prosecution Service of Canada simply to stop enforcing laws prohibiting marijuana use.

When MJINews asked the information office of the PPSC about this, it declined to “comment or speculate.”

On Nov. 13, 2015, Trudeau issued mandate letters to his cabinet members. Three of these letters referenced marijuana.


Three Ministers

The letter to Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Reybould drew the most attention. It charged her with creating “a federal-provincial-territorial process that will lead to the legalization and regulation of marijuana.”

Wilson-Reybould, a former provincial Crown prosecutor, and the first indigenous person to occupy her present post, has also been instructed to pursue a number of other goals: to respond to a recent Supreme Court decision on physician-assisted death; to review “restorative justice processes and other initiatives to reduce the rate of incarceration among Indigenous Canadians”; to work on the improved use of information technology to make the criminal justice system more efficient and timely; to reduce the number of handguns and assault weapons on the streets, etc. The marijuana item is one of 15 on an ambitious list.

The other two mandate letters to reference marijuana went to Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale and Minister of Health Jane Philpott. This may be important. If Trudeau had proposed marijuana law reform only to Wilson-Reybould, it might be thought that what he had in mind was mere decriminalization. But by bringing in the other ministers, he has indicated that something broader is in the works.

MJINews interviewed two well-informed observers of the Canadian scene, and of the politics of marijuana in particular. These interviews gave a sharp sense of the hope with which the industry views the new government, and of an important qualification of that hope, the negative example some in Canada believe Washington state has offered them.


Reading Tea Leaves

Craig Jones, executive director, NORML Canada, said in a recent telephone interview that NORML is “optimistic about a couple of things,” as the new administration gets underway.

First, there is the new Minister of Justice herself. “She’s seen up close the damage that the war on drugs has done to her people,” Jones said. Second, there is another affected cabinet member. “The new Minister of Health, Jane Philpott, is a family doctor with experience in Africa,” and this means that industry representatives and reform advocates can talk evidence and best practices with her. She is not allergic or hostile to evidence as Conservative Party health ministers were.

“Under the prior [Harper] regime,” Jones added, “as soon as you started talking evidence you got a very hostile reaction.”

One reasonable guess, though Jones said it involves working from tea leaves, is that Trudeau will create a working group, and its members will study places where marijuana has been lawful, from the state of Washington to Uruguay and Portugal. It will ask officials there, “what do you wish you had done differently?” That could result in a consensus, “which is the Canadian way” to bring about change.

One circumstance that enables change in Canada now is that the climate of public opinion and resultant law is evolving so quickly in the United States, notably in two of the states contiguous with Canada: Alaska and Washington. There has long been a worry in Canada that if that country liberalized marijuana too quickly, getting ahead of the United States in this, war-on-drugs politics in the U.S. could produce a thickening of the border, with grave consequences for a critical trade relationship. That concern has lessened in recent years.


Concern About Transitional Issues

In another recent MJINews interview, Jamie Shaw, President of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries, gave additional insight into how a critical segment of the cannabis industry in that country sees the results of the 2015 election.

Asked broadly how CAMCD sees the new political developments, Shaw said they were “very positive” because “the previous government never made policy based on evidence, and was just not willing to look at facts.”

The CAMCD is more than a mere lobbying group. It is a trade association with certification requirements, networking programs within the industry, and so forth. But it is also active in promoting the political goals of the medical marijuana industry, such as, in the words of its website’s home page, “the patient’s right to grow their own medicine, and community-based access for those unable or unwilling to do so.”

A natural question, though, is whether the CAMCD has a position on recreational marijuana. Shaw said it is not opposed. But its members are cautious about certain transition issues that a move in that direction might generate.

She said that the recent history of the marijuana industry right across the border, in the state of Washington, suggests reasons for their caution. “Washington authorized the use of medical marijuana, but didn’t regulate a way for patients to obtain it, then legalized and regulated recreational dispensaries without address the existing medical ones or their patients.”

That, Shaw believes, was a mistake. There is a role for specifically medical dispensaries. “Very simply, if you are a patient with specific symptoms you’re looking for relief from, then going into a store where a clerk is just going to tell you, ‘this stuff will get you really high’ isn’t going to help you.”

All these expectations and hopes raise questions of timing. How long might it take for the new government to act, and how long do they have?

“We hope that they take enough time to get it right,” Shaw said. “But we don’t know how much time they have” since much of the public is confused about where the law stands and habits/institutions are growing up within the confusion.

“We hope that they’ll act within 6 months to a year, but dispensaries in Canada have been operating for almost two decades now, so we’re not too impatient.”

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