December 27, 2016 1:00 pm
Updated: April 12, 2017 2:04 pm

Nine questions Parliament will have to answer before we legalize marijuana

A man smokes a joint in view of the Peace Tower in Ottawa in this file image.

THE CANADIAN PRESS
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At some point in the New Year, the Liberals will unveil details of how recreational marijuana will be legalized.

There will be a lot of moving parts, and not much to go on. Canada is the first industrialized country to completely legalize recreational marijuana (four U.S. states have, and four more will follow after referendum results in November).

One thing it won’t be, the government has made it clear, is a free-for-all.

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The task force’s discussion paper makes frequent use of the word “strict.” Production systems will have rules that are strict. Public sites for pot use will be strictly limited. Government will “enforce a system of strict production, distribution and sales”. Marketing will be “strictly limited”. For good measure, pot will be produced and sold under a “strict, well-regulated system”.

The message so far — yes, we’re legalizing pot, but the grownups are in charge.

The final decisions are up to Parliament, but the task force’s final report, released earlier in December (with 30 further uses of the word ‘strict’ or its variations), may offer an early hint about the direction the Liberals want to take.

Here are nine marijuana-related issues that will get a lot of attention in 2017:

WATCH: A federal government task force looking into the legalization of marijuana has released its recommendations. Ted Chernecki has the details of the report.

1. How should we deal with pot-impaired driving, since there may be more of it?

We know a few things about driving and marijuana in Canada. Cannabis is the second-most common drug (after alcohol) found in the bodies of drivers killed in crashes. Stoned driving is increasing, too — twice as many Ontario residents admitted using cannabis and driving in 2015 as did in 2010. It’s also a lot harder to detect and prosecute than traditional drunk driving.

And with legalization on the horizon we can assume that we’ll see a lot more of it, as marijuana becomes a lot more accessible and new users start experimenting.

Drunk driving is a fairly well-understood problem. To the extent possible, we know how to find, test and successfully prosecute drunk drivers.

Can we treat marijuana-impaired driving as much as possible like drunk driving? It was clear that that the commission would have liked to have.

Two challenges are:

  • Whether the science supports bloodstream limits for THC for drivers who use pot, like the long-standing limits for alcohol. Britain and several U.S. states have set limits, but in the commission’s view “the science is not quite there,” committee chair Anne McLellan told reporters Dec. 13 in Ottawa.
  • How to measure THC levels in drivers. This is a problem that was solved long ago for alcohol, but good-quality roadside tools for measuring drugs are, depending on who you talk to, not ready for prime time or not ready for prime time until recently. Seven police forces across the country will be trying out saliva testers in the near future, the federal public safety ministry announced on December 14.

READ: Two decisions Parliament will have to make about pot-impaired driving

WATCH: On the heels of a task force report on marijuana legalization, there are serious concerns being raised by the Canadian Automobile Association. CAA says urgent works needs to be done in order to implement a system that will keep Canadians safe on the roads. Global’s Natasha Pace reports.

2. What to do about home grows?

You can make your own wine and beer at home and grow and cure your own tobacco for your own home-produced cigars.

So if buying pot in the future is as easy as going to the pot store and pulling out your debit card, what about combining hobbies and growing your own?

Three out of four U.S. states where marijuana is legal allow home grows to some extent, like low minimum ages and low prices.

The commission’s recommendations look a lot like the law in Oregon, which allows up to four plants per household. They seem to have taken note of the enormous pot plants some Oregonians cultivate to get around the four-plant limit, suggesting a one-metre height limit. (Though if your plant decides to grow past that point, are you supposed to prune it shorter? Also, will breeders offer Canadian home growers dense, short, wide-spreading plants?)

How enforceable any of this will be is an open question. There’s no suggestion that home pot growers be licenced, as people who grow their own medical marijuana now are. So even with all the will in the world to go around measuring people’s marijuana plants, it’s not clear how any would-be enforcer, however zealous, would find them.

READ: Smelly, fussy, humid: Why you may not want to grow your own legal pot

3. What about municipalities?

Local governments will find themselves making rules about home grows, as some have for dispensaries, which raises another issue. Between licencing and zoning decisions about retail locations, policing costs and bylaw issues around home grows, legal marijuana may become a thankless headache for municipalities across Canada.

But if there’s any plan to cut them into a share of marijuana tax revenue, nobody’s mentioned it so far. In a report in November, the Parliamentary Budget Officer assumed a 60:40 split between the provinces and the federal government.

“Municipal governments … advocated that revenues derived from a licensing regime should be used to offset increased costs for oversight and enforcement of standards,” the commission’s report noted.

(Colorado gives local governments a 15 per cent cut of state marijuana taxes raised in their area, and allows municipal governments to impose their own pot tax over and above the state one. Aurora, Colo. has made over US$8 million on marijuana taxes since legalization in 2014, the Denver Post reported.)

READ: Montreal mayor has ‘zero tolerance’ for illegal marijuana dispensaries

4. What to do about super-potent cannabis products?

‘Dabs,’ or ‘shatter,’ made from extracting the THC from cannabis leaves with a butane flame, can contain as much as 80 per cent THC.

Do ultra-high-strength marijuana products have a place under legalization? Maybe. Shatter is legally sold in Colorado. But it is a separate discussion that we will have to have.

For its part, the commission considered, and rejected, the idea of trying to set a limit on how powerful marijuana products are allowed to be.

“Due to a lack of evidence, any chosen threshold (of THC potency) would be arbitrary and a challenge to enforce,” the commission outlined in its report.

READ: What is shatter or dabbing? Experts warn of dangerous new marijuana trend

WATCH: Have you heard of a drug called shatter? It’s a highly potent marijuana product that looks like toffee. The Vancouver Police Gang Unit recently put out a warning about its dangers, but as Kristen Robinson reports, marijuana advocates are now firing back.

5. Where to set a minimum age? (There may not be much choice) 

One of the difficult trade-offs with legalizing pot is deciding whether to favour public health or crushing the black market. They’re both laudable goals, but unfortunately they pull in opposite directions.

Setting a minimum age throws the problem into sharp relief. Medical organizations, like the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Pediatric Society, want to restrict pot available to young adults for brain development reasons. The CPS, for example, wants to restrict under-25s to low-strength cannabis. The CMA said that ideally they would set a minimum age of 25 to consume pot at all.

The problem is that the existing black market in marijuana doesn’t just evaporate on day 1 of legalization. If young adults, who smoke pot more than other Canadians, can’t buy pot legally, they will just buy it illegally, like they do now anyway. (Or they’ll buy it from people who bought it legally, in the tradition of high schoolers getting their older siblings to buy them booze.)

That means that existing criminal networks flourish, governments miss out on tax revenue, and the pot gets smoked anyway.

If we’re being realistic, governments have very little flexibility in setting minimum ages. The commission bowed to this, suggesting a minimum age of 18. The provinces are likely to set it at the minimum drinking age, for consistency’s sake – 18 in Quebec, Alberta and Manitoba, 19 everywhere else.

READ: Canadian Paediatric Society urges Ottawa to prohibit youth from purchasing recreational marijuana

WATCH: Minister of Health Jane Philpott said the government will review the recommendations from the Cannabis Task Force and introduce the legislation into the legalization of marijuana in the spring, including the legal age of purchasing the marijuana.

6. Where to set prices? (There may not be much choice) 

Governments may not have all that much flexibility about pricing, either. Legal marijuana sales may be a monopoly on paper, but something of a free market in practice.

Will cash-strapped governments see a lot of new revenue from taxing pot?

In November, the Parliamentary Budget Officer gently managed expectations in that department, pointing out that since legal pot prices can’t go that far above the local dealer, there’s not all that much margin to tax.

Legal pot will have some advantages — clean, well-lit professionally run stores with a choice of product and real information will be one. Another will be a range of edible products, something legal producers can make more easily.  Another, over time, may be efficient, large-scale production and resulting economies of scale.

READ: Legal pot in Canada could sell for $5 a gram — or less

READ: Ottawa expects 600,000 more people to smoke pot after it’s legalized

7. What about medical marijuana?

Medical marijuana was once a carefully-carved out legal zone for something that was otherwise illegal. With recreational pot about to be legal, does it make sense any more as a category?

The commission argued that medical pot should still be its own category, a position that pleased the Canadian Pharmacists Association. (Pharmacists, and pharmacies, would like to be involved in dispensing medical marijuana.)

READ: Shoppers Drug Mart applies to sell medical marijuana

WATCH: The country’s largest pharmacy chain wants a piece of the pot pie. Shoppers Drug Mart has applied to Health Canada for a licence to distribute medical marijuana. It comes as the government crafts new cannabis laws, but as Mike Le Couteur explains some marijuana advocates say pot and pills shouldn’t mix.

8. What about edibles?

Reporting on marijuana issues this fall, we heard a number of times that the future of pot was in eating or drinking it, not smoking it. Fewer and fewer people smoke tobacco, and there’s no reason to believe that many non-smokers who might be open to trying pot when it’s legal are interested in smoking it.

Edibles are an attractive alternative for a couple of reasons, to the extent that there’s evidence that marijuana is a gateway drug, it’s not to harder drugs but to tobacco. (It seems that once you start smoking one substance you become more open to smoking other substances.)

Also, smoking isn’t a good way of calibrating how much of a mind-altering substance you’re actually consuming. Some THC will drift away in the air, and it’s hard to know how much. Add the heavy, potent smell and intoxicated people using fire, and you have more liabilities.

On the other hand, Colorado’s experience offers some reasons to move cautiously. The state has had to crack down on edible pot products packaged as candy that might appeal to children.

Also, some people, despite labelling, get far, far more baked than they meant to with edibles.

After legalization in Colorado, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd ate an amount of THC-laced candy intended for 16 people due to a misunderstanding.

“I strained to remember where I was or even what I was wearing, touching my green corduroy jeans and staring at the exposed-brick wall,” she wrote. “As my paranoia deepened, I became convinced that I had died and no one was telling me. It took all night before it began to wear off, distressingly slowly.”

As well, the delayed effect of digestion can mean that people don’t get the immediate feedback about intoxication that they would with smoked marijuana or alcohol, and decide the edible isn’t working. In a worst-case situation they may give up and drive home, only to have the edible kick in on a highway on-ramp.

What are the solutions? They will have to involve education, clear labelling and standard doses of THC. The commission recommended banning edibles that may be appealing to children, like candy.

READ: Digesting legal weed: The hidden risks of eating marijuana

9. Where will legal pot be sold?

This is one of the more interesting hot potatoes, though to a large extent the decision is up to the provinces.

The most conservative approach, favoured by a number of provincial governments and by public-sector unions across the country, is to use existing public-sector liquor store systems.

READ: LCBO trying to make sense of hazy marijuana business, downplaying revenue: documents

There seems to be a consensus that it isn’t a good idea to sell cannabis alongside alcohol. But that doesn’t mean that provincial liquor monopolies couldn’t sell marijuana, just that they’d need a separate network of bricks-and-mortar stores to sell it from.

But the provinces are going to have to take a hard look at their priorities. If their hope for marijuana sales is to maximize revenue while encouraging responsible consumption, a system where tax is applied when the product is shipped from the grower and sellers are regulated (more or less like licenced establishments are regulated) might be easier and cheaper than starting a network of dozens, or hundreds, of stores.

Another approach might involve the existing dispensaries, though all of them are operating illegally as things stand — being tolerated, or not, depending on time and place. The dispensaries are clearly trying to be facts on the ground when pot is legalized, established and hard to dislodge. How successful will they be? We’ll soon find out.

Mail-order from licenced growers (almost the only legal way for registered medical marijuana users to buy cannabis) is another option. It would have the advantage of being a system that’s easy to set up quickly.

Cannabis Canada Association, a marijuana growers’ organization, proposes a system under which recreational marijuana consumers would register directly with producers, have their ages verified, then have pot shipped to them directly.

So long as cannabis is taxed and sold in a regulated way, it’s possible that governments can live with different systems coexisting.

WATCH: A federal task force report says provinces should oversee retail distribution of legalized marijuana. Alberta’s government says it’s working on new regulations, but hasn’t made any decisions. As Global’s Gary Bobrovitz reports, some say this could mean a pot shop in every neighbourhood.

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