Liberals Vote To Legalize Pot But Devil's In The Details
OTTAWA - If Liberals are serious about presenting voters with a credible plan to legalize and regulate cannabis in the next federal election, they have a lot of work to do.
Even some of the most passionate advocates of an end to pot prohibition acknowledge that legalization is a much more complicated public policy than the "just say no" criminalization model that critics say is such an abject failure.
From Canada's signature on international drug conventions to the logistics of local marijuana production, distribution and taxation, a host of crucial policy decisions will face any government that attempts legalization.
"You have to think harder about how to regulate it," says Eugene Oscapella, who teaches drug policy in the criminology department at the University of Ottawa.
"With criminalizing, we just ban it so we don't have to think too much — but it doesn't work and it causes tremendous problems. To actually develop an intelligent policy requires a lot more work."
Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae alluded to those looming headaches at last weekend's party policy convention, where 77 per cent of voting delegates endorsed the pot legalization model.
"It's now up to us to take that resolution and see exactly what it will mean in terms of policy," said Rae, "because there are some practical questions we have to look at."
Many of those practicalities are hinted at in the lengthy Liberal resolution.
It commits the party to "legalize marijuana and ensure the regulation and taxation of its production, distribution, and use, while enacting strict penalties for illegal trafficking, illegal importation and exportation, and impaired driving."
The resolution goes on to propose increased youth drug education (already a government policy), an amnesty and record clearance for all previous convictions of simple possession, and federal-provincial negotiations on regulatory control "while respecting ... particular regional concerns and practices."
Mark Haden, an academic at the University of British Columbia and author on drug policy issues, has developed spreadsheets that lay out various options for distribution models.
"The commercialization model versus the public health model is really the first decision, and then all things flow from that," said Haden.
"I think the public fear is we're going to give it to the commercial companies and they're going to take it and run with it. And that isn't true. Well, it could be true, but it's a truth I strongly advocate against."
Among the questions policy-makers must ask:
— What sort of branding, if any, and packaging would be permitted?
— What would the age limit be for consumption?
— Who would be permitted to grow marijuana, and in what quantities? Would only licensed growers be allowed to produce pot?
— What would be the distribution point, public or private enterprise?
— Would there be volume limits on individual purchases, unlike alcohol and tobacco?
— A tax rate would be required that is high enough to discourage consumption but low enough to deter the black market from undercutting legal sales — a balancing act tobacco regulators continue to juggle.
— How would Canada manage crucial border issues with a prohibitionist United States?
It's only a partial, yet daunting, list of policy questions, with plenty of political risk.
Michel Perron, CEO of the government-funded Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse, expresses his anti-legalization position in terms of the precautionary principle.
"Our default position is let's not put any more genies out of the bottle," said Perron. "Let's try to ensure we can manage best what it is we're doing and how we work it."
Perron argues some of the perceived benefits of legalization would be lost in implementation.
"Put another way, simply legalizing marijuana is not going to address many of the problems that they've raised."
For one thing, most people agree that any legalized pot regime would have age restrictions prohibiting younger consumers, similar to alcohol. So enforcement policies — and costs — would continue under the new model.
And as legalization advocate Oscapella observed in an interview: "As long as the United States prohibits cannabis, there will be a black market in Canada in relation of sales to the United States."
Severe penalties, and police interdiction, will still be needed.
How much less policing might cost under a legalized pot regime depends on how the system is structured, and who you ask.
Perron, coming at the issue from a substance abuse perspective, laments the vastly different conclusions arrived at by researchers with "competing interests" using largely the same data.
"It exacerbates an already highly politicized issue and sometimes creates a certain paralysis around it," he said.
Critics say that's a recipe for public policy inertia. Few would argue that almost 90 years of marijuana prohibition in Canada — with ever-increasing government efforts to deter its trade — has been a success.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson's office said he was unavailable all week for an interview on the Liberal legalization proposal.
"That said, our government has no intention to decriminalize or legalize marijuana," said Nicholson's spokeswoman.
The Justice Department, however, has commissioned an evaluation of the Conservative anti-drug strategy, which provided a largely favourable report last September.
Obtained under Access to Information by The Canadian Press, the report's specific findings on the relevance and effectiveness of the strategy were blacked out. The report also twice lamented that the strategy "does not have specific measurable targeted outcomes."
It also noted that "regulatory deficiencies, the massive scope of the drug problem and limited resources of enforcement partners," all contribute to "gaps" in the Conservative government's enforcement plan.
Skeptics such as Perron of the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse call legalization "an untested social experiment," but others insist there is a wealth of knowledge and experience at hand.
"They've been thinking about this for decades," said Haden, who works closely with B.C.'s health officer council.
"The work is being done now in anticipation of a legalized regime. We can start to talk about what it looks like."
Haden's assessment is sobering, nonetheless.
"We do understand some regulatory principles around lots of things. We understand from alcohol and tobacco. We can learn the lessons from there and say: Big mistake, let's not replicate that error."
— With files from Steve RennieRelated Video:
Six Hot Topics At The Liberal Convention
It's was extreme makeover time for the Liberal Party of Canada at its <a href="https://www.facebook.com/AlthiaRaj">biennial policy convention in Ottawa</a>. Here's a half-dozen hot topics the 2,600 delegates debatedor decided.<br><br> Photo: CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld<br><br> <i>With files from CBC.</i>
Who's Running This Show? Part One: Bob Rae
UPDATE: <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/01/14/liberal-convention-2012-ottawa_n_1206071.html?ref=canada&ref=canada">Leadership speculation swirled at the Liberal convention</a>. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty ruled out a run and his brother David said he was considering a campaign. Former cabinet minister Martin Cauchon also attracted attention by hosting a hospitality suite, encouraging some to argue he must be considering a bid for the party's top job. Former astronaut and MP Marc Garneau is also said to be considering a bid. Of course, current interim leader Bob Rae continued to be the primary focus of leadership rumours.<br><br> He's the interim leader for now, but after Wednesday's barnburner of a speech to his Parliamentary caucus, those inclined to think he also wants to be the permanent leader had fresh fuel for their burning suspicions. Will more signs emerge over the convention weekend? Will other potential candidates for the permanent leadership stand up and say something about their own ambitions?<br><br> Photo: CP
Who's Running This Show? Part Two: The Party President
UPDATE: <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/01/15/mike-crawley-liberal-convention-2012-ottawa_n_1207459.html?1326654076&ref=canada#s612012&title=_Whos_Running">Mike Crawley was elected President of the Liberal Party of Canada</a> at the biennial convention in Ottawa.<br><br> Will it be Mister President (Mike Crawley) or Madame President (Sheila Copps)? Or do the media pundits have it wrong and delegates are prepared to elect one of the other two contenders? Will the party elect someone with radical ideas for reform or someone more comfortable with the party's established path? The presidency vote could become a proxy for the bigger tug of war touching nearly every aspect of the convention -- how ready is the party to embrace change?<br><br> Photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Frank Gunn
Who's Running This Show? Part Three: The Contest For National Policy Chair
UPDATE: Maryanne Kampouris was elected National Policy Chair at the Liberal convention in Ottawa.<br><br> Five party activists are in the running to helm the party's quest to redefine its policy platform before the next election, including one (20-year old Zach Paikin, above) who can't personally remember not just Liberal glory days in the seventies, but any of the party's history prior to Jean Chrétien's leadership. What coherent vision will emerge from the race for the chair and from policy resolutions delegates will debate on the floor.
Monarchy, Marijuana ... Oh My!
UPDATE: The Liberal party <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/01/15/liberal-vote-legalize-marijuana_n_1207388.html?ref=canada">voted for the resolution to legalize marijuana</a> and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/01/15/liberals-stand-behind-the_n_1207370.html?ref=canada&ref=canada">against the resolution to cut ties with the monarchy.</a><br><br> Speaking of youth and policy debates ... a range of ideas are up for discussion at this convention, including some more radical ideas originating with the youth wing of the party, such as dropping the Queen as Canada's head of state in favour of a Canadian-born figurehead and the legalization and regulation of marijuana. If the delegates go for some of the more exotic policy ideas, will that capture some excitement in the eyes of the voting public?<br><br> Photo: PA
Quebec (isn't it always?)
Was the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/01/10/lise-st-denis-ndp-join-liberals_n_1196406.html">defection of Quebec MP Lise St-Denis from the NDP</a> a one-off, or the start of a trend? If Quebec is up-for-grabs as pollsters suggest, what strategy do the Liberals have to capitalize on that opportunity and try for a return to the party's glory days of dominating the province's politics? Can their brand be saved in Quebec?<br><br> Photo: Alamy
Reform, Rebuild, Renew...
If it starts with "re-" it was probably a theme at this convention ... which might explain the giant letters displayed at the entrance to the convention centre. If the party wants a rebirth, it has to reform in order to rebuild. To do that, it may need to recycle some past hits, but the party's regeneration will require fresh ideas, too. To avoid re-igniting past tensions, Liberals will need to avoid repeating their past mistakes. Job one is restoring the party in the minds of voters as the best alternative to the governing Conservatives. And that means renewal.<br><br> Photo: Getty