Hébert: Legislation aims to restrict access, but key questions left unanswered

Justin Trudeau wants Canadians to see his plan to legalize marijuana as a massive government intervention to save the country’s youth from the perils of cannabis.

“We want to make it more difficult for kids to access marijuana. That is why we are going to legalize and control marijuana,” the prime minister proclaimed in the Commons on the day before his government tabled two bills to implement his election promise.

With the stage set for a less-than-festive announcement, sunny ways were definitively not in the government’s script for Thursday’s opening act in the legislative debate on the legalization of marijuana.

Absent the prime minister – otherwise occupied somewhere else in the parliamentary precinct – it was left to a quartet of grim-faced ministers to expand on the legislation.

This they did by showcasing a litany of planned prohibitions and restrictions, and saying as little as possible about the actual intent of the policy, which remains to make it possible for adults to procure cannabis legally.

If the argument that the way to keep more teenagers away from marijuana is to sell it legally sounds counterintuitive, it may be because most of us do not remember having a harder time – as adolescents – getting our underage hands on alcohol and tobacco products than on cannabis.

There is for now scant evidence that Canada, by going through the many hoops involved in legalizing marijuana, will achieve Trudeau’s purported societal goal.

When it comes to selling cannabis legally, the state of Colorado has a head start on comparable jurisdictions. It is not clear that the policy has had the kind of effect on underage consumption that the federal government says it is looking for. Or, for that matter, the negative consequences critics of legalization warn about.

But then the first risk the government is attempting to counter with the repressive subtext of its dual bills is political. There is widespread public ambivalence about the Liberal plan. It might not take much to turn that ambivalence into a backlash. Hence the heavy emphasis on the introduction of maximum sentences for selling or giving marijuana to a minor on par with those on the books for raping a child, and a plan to give the police the right to demand saliva tests from drivers on a basis as slim as red eyes.

The provinces would also be free to raise the legal age to buy cannabis up from 18 and to lower the maximum amount of cannabis allowable down from 30 grams.

The New Democrats have long supported the decriminalization of marijuana and have no ideological objections to going the extra step to legalization. They are happy, for now, to watch the government sink or swim with its bid.

The Conservatives did campaign against Trudeau’s promise in the last election. But there is no consensus on the way forward among their leadership candidates. Some, like Kellie Leitch, are promising to repeal the legislation. Others, like Kevin O’Leary and Maxime Bernier, have expressed qualified support for the move in the past.

There is no need for the opposition to rush to judgment. This debate will play out for much of the remainder of the Liberal mandate. The government would like to have the law in place by July of next year, but with the pricing issues among many others still up in the air, it would probably be wise to not hold one’s breath for the rollout to be on schedule.

On Parliament Hill, the last few hours before a long weekend and a two-week parliamentary break are the equivalent of a graveyard shift. On afternoons when Ottawa’s airport lounge is busier than the Commons lobby, governments have tended to dump potentially embarrassing news, in the hope that it will get a swift burial.

It is in this parliamentary cemetery Thursday that Trudeau’s government chose to plant the legislative seeds of its marijuana policy. The choice of timing is not a conventional one for what used to be a signature platform plank.

But then, like the defunct Liberal commitment to a new voting system, the marijuana promise was one that no leader before Trudeau had ever made, and he made it at a time when the party was further removed from power than at any other point in its modern history.

Based on the collective body language on exhibit on the government side on Thursday, the two promises have in common that the Liberals have come to rue the day Trudeau made them.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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