Opinion-Policy Nexus

In times past when the government had a really big deal to announce, or an item of long-anticipated legislation, it would pull out all the stops. Parliament would be primed. The prime minister would beam proudly while the sponsoring minister(s) explained in lavish terms how the new measure would dramatically improve the lives of ordinary Canadians, enhance democracy and make the nation stronger, safer and more prosperous. Then cabinet members would fan out across the land to deliver the glad tidings.

Hype like that.

That’s not what happened last week when the Justin Trudeau government honoured its signature campaign commitment to legalize the possession and recreational use of marijuana. When the new regime comes into effect next year, Canada, we are told, will become only the second country in the world after Uruguay where cannabis is legal nation-wide.

Cause for celebration? Not exactly.

In the 2015 election campaign, the Liberals – as a third party with nothing to lose and the votes of young people to win – promised to strike down the ancient prohibition against marijuana. But the two bills they unveiled last week were not presented in the context of modernization or liberalization. Rather, they were couched in the grudging language of restriction and control.

As Prime Minister Trudeau commented on the day before the measures were introduced, “We want to make it more difficult for kids to access marijuana. That is why we are going to legalize and control marijuana.”

One wonders whether youths in 2015 anticipated that a vote for the Liberals would be a vote for a government that would seek to make it more difficult for their generation to get their hands on pot.

Be that as it may, the Prime Minister was absent from the Commons on the big day. Distancing himself, he left the heavy lifting of explanation to Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, her parliamentary secretary (and former Toronto police chief) Bill Blair, Health Minister Jane Philpott and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.

They spelled out the nitty-gritty of the government’s plan in Bills C-45 and C-46 to get control of the marijuana market away from organized crime, to limit access to pot among youngsters under 18, and to crack down on driving while impaired by drugs or alcohol.

The measures include a new Criminal Code offence, punishable by up to 14 years in prison, for supplying cannabis to those under 18, and one providing for roadside saliva tests for drugs with sanctions ranging up to 10 years’ imprisonment.

While the production of marijuana will be regulated by the federal government, the provinces will be responsible for setting up systems to control its marketing. Most provinces will probably opt for systems similar to Ontario’s LCBO for alcohol.

If this doesn’t seem quite like the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, it isn’t.

The Liberals found themselves between a rock and a hard place. They knew their campaign promise to legalize marijuana had been more important to millennials and other young voters than any other plank in their 2015 campaign. They could not afford to lose that support by breaking their promise – especially not after breaking the promise of electoral reform.

Once in office, however, the Liberals discovered something they should already have known – that there is no national consensus on the treatment of marijuana. Everyone wants to get criminals out of the pot business and everyone can agree that the drug should be kept away from children.

But for every millennial who welcomes the Liberal measures, there will be a parent or grandparent who fears, with good reason, that the impending marijuana-control regime will be no more effective than existing rules governing alcohol have been in stamping out under-age drinking. 

The Liberals have no choice but to try to make their pot regime work with tight regulations and harsh penalties, some of which are bound to face Charter challenges. If it doesn’t work – and some things are bound to go wrong – the failure will be on Trudeau. He won’t be able to distance himself from the fallout.

Monday, April 17, 2017 - 10:25