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Ottawa strikes task force as it moves to legalize marijuana

Ottawa is taking the first major step toward marijuana legalization by forming a federal task force led by former deputy PM Anne McLellan, which will report back in November.

By Robert Benzie, Queen's Park Bureau Chief, Toronto Star
Thursday June 30, 2016

Ottawa is taking the first major step toward marijuana with a new federal task force led by former deputy prime minister Anne McLellan.

But advocates hoping for unfettered access to recreational cannabis may be disappointed that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government plans a strict regulatory framework to limit the production and distribution of weed.

Liberal MP Bill Blair (Scarborough Southwest), the former Toronto police chief who has been Trudeau’s point person on the issue, said Thursday “the science is overwhelmingly clear that marijuana is not a benign substance.

“It represents a risk to certain sectors of our population, particularly kids, in the impact on developing adolescent brains. But it also can have an impact on very frequent users or people who may be suffering from other illnesses, particularly mental illness,” Blair said in Ottawa.

“Unlike (growing) tomatoes, it is a substance that poses certain significant both social and health harms and risks to Canadians.”

McLellan, a former health and justice minister, said her task force of medical and legal experts would consult with provinces, municipalities, and the public before releasing a report in November that will be the blueprint for next year’s legislation.

“The current situation is not working and we need a better way forward,” said McLellan.

“I have myself concluded that legalization with a regulatory regime, such as the task force will be exploring, is the way forward,” she said.

Also on the volunteer panel are McGill University medical professor Mark Ware, Centre of Addiction and Mental Health president and CEO Catherine Zahn, University of Victoria criminologist Susan Boyd, former Vancouver city councillor George Chow, Newfoundland police Supt. Marlene Jesso, B.C.’s chief public health officer Perry Kendall, former RCMP deputy commissioner Rafik Souccar, and University of Saskatchewan law professor Barbara von Tigerstrom.

Ottawa has instructed them that the new law must “protect young Canadians by keeping marijuana out of the hands of children and youth; keep profits out of the hands of criminals, particularly organized crime; reduce the burdens on police and the justice system associated with simple possession of marijuana offences, (and) prevent Canadians from entering the criminal justice system and receiving criminal records for simple possession of marijuana offences.”

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould stressed marijuana laws should remain in place, meaning Toronto’s more than 100 “dispensaries” are operating illegally so police crackdowns and criminal prosecutions should continue.

“The possession, production, and trafficking of marijuana remain illegal. This includes storefronts selling marijuana, commonly known as ‘dispensaries’ and ‘compassion clubs,’ ” Wilson-Raybould said in a joint statement with federal Health Minister Jane Philpott and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.

“These operations are illegally supplied and provide products that are untested, unregulated and that may be unsafe. The government of Canada supports law enforcement actions to address illegal storefront distribution and sale of marijuana in Canada.”

However, the Toronto Dispensary Coalition’s Michael McLellan (no relation to Anne McLellan) said the shops work in Colorado and other jurisdictions where marijuana is legal.

“Dispensaries in our coalition strive to ensure the product we sell is safe and ethically grown, free from organized and violent crime. The repeated accusations by anti-dispensary business interests to the contrary are false and unconstructive,” he said.

Despite a B.C. court ruling that Ottawa has until August to address, medicinal marijuana will still only be legally available to patients with a prescription from a medical doctor and provided by one of Canada’s 33 licensed producers.

Those Health Canada-inspected facilities must ship their cannabis by registered mail and are not allowed to sell directly to the public through storefronts.

Philpott suggested marijuana would be a federally controlled substance as tobacco is.

“It’s not uncommon for other substances to have regulation from the federal government, so, as you know, there’s a Tobacco Control Act in place,” the health minister said.

But in Ontario people are legally allowed to grow up to 15 kilograms of raw leaf tobacco for personal use each year and they can brew their own beer and make wine.

So it remains unclear how Ottawa would prohibit homegrown weed for recreational use.

Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals have a dozen provincial departments working on a marijuana strategy in preparation for legalization.

“We don’t know what the regulatory framework is going to be, so we have to wait for that to be put in place. We will work with the federal government as we develop in Ontario the complementary distribution network,” Wynne told reporters Thursday at the construction site of the Laird station of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT.

“(If) you’re asking me about revenue from marijuana sales, I can’t tell you what that would be. We’ve got people in our ministries working on what it might mean,” said the premier, who wants recreational marijuana sales to be handled by the LCBO, the provincial liquor monopoly.

“I have been very clear that I think there needs to be, first, the distinction between recreational and medicinal marijuana.”

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