OTTAWA – The federal Liberal government has no plans to decriminalize marijuana before legalizing it, Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould said Monday.
“It would mean that marijuana would remain an illegal substance and that it would continue to be grown and distributed by organized crime networks,” Wilson-Raybould told the House of Commons.
“Canadians, both adults and youth, would continue to purchase a product of unknown potency and quality while fuelling the profits of organized crime.”
She said the Liberals would therefore not be supporting an NDP motion urging the federal government to immediately decriminalize simple possession of marijuana.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on a promise to legalize, regulate and restrict access to marijuana, and his government plans to introduce legislation next spring.
But New Democrat MP Murray Rankin said that could take two years to come into effect, leaving many Canadians at risk of criminal records for something the government doesn’t believe should be a crime.
Rankin said all it would take is political will, since Wilson-Raybould has the power to direct prosecutors to avoid pressing charges.
He also noted that even former Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien has come out in favour of decriminalization.
“To hide behind the status quo and do nothing, (which) is the government’s particular option until they finally have a law enacted, is not right,” Rankin said.
“It creates a continuing injustice in this country, which is felt in different parts of the country in different ways, and we say on this side of the House that it’s time to fix that problem now.”
Wilson-Raybould disputed the idea that the law is in limbo. “The law is in force and it should be obeyed,” she said.
The NDP motion had at least one Liberal on its side: Toronto Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith.
“Is not decriminalization a fairer option as a matter of scarce judicial resources and a matter of not affecting young peoples’ lives negatively for no reason at all when we are legalizing within one year?” Erskine-Smith asked during the debate.
Liberal MP Bill Blair, the parliamentary secretary to the justice minister, said it would be irresponsible to decriminalize marijuana before the government has the chance to replace the existing law with a regulatory framework.
“It would be reckless in the extreme and perhaps create much greater risk for our communities to remove all control from cannabis,” said Blair, a former Toronto police chief and the government’s point man on legalization.
“It would create opportunities for organized crime and put our children at risk.”
Conservative MP Colin Carrie opposed the motion, but for different reasons than the Liberals. He accused the Liberals of creating a policy vacuum and the NDP of trying to fill it with more bad policy.
Carrie also suggested the Liberals might never come through on their campaign promise to legalize marijuana.
“We don’t even know if marijuana is going to become legal, so why would decriminalizing it immediately be the solution?” he asked. “At this time, the only responsible solution is to enforce the law.”
Health Minister Jane Philpott formally announced the federal government’s plan to legalize and regulate marijuana in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, saying the legislation could come in spring 2017.
That same day, Trudeau said it would be irresponsible to decriminalize marijuana in the meantime.
“The fact of the matter is that decriminalization … actually gives a legal stream of income to criminal organizations. That is not what anyone wants in this country.”