MONTREAL — Health Minister Rona Ambrose ordered a crackdown on groups that illegally advertise marijuana and re-stated the Conservative party's pledge to keep storefront dispensaries illegal Saturday on the eve of the expected launch of a federal election campaign.
"Today I directed Health Canada to create a task force to crack down on illegal marijuana advertising," Ambrose said in a statement.
"This task force will ensure that those who engage in such illegal activities are stopped, and should these illegal activities continue, promptly referred to law enforcement."
Health Canada issued a statement saying it will begin actively monitoring marijuana advertising instead of acting mostly on the basis of complaints.
Under current law, only regulated parties such as licenced producers are allowed to advertise basic, non-promotional information.
Ambrose's pre-campaign statement made multiple references to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and described his stance on marijuana as "irresponsible."
"While Justin Trudeau wants to legalize marijuana making it easier for youth to buy and smoke, this Conservative Government does not support making access to illegal drugs easier," she said.
The Liberals countered that the Conservatives' approach to marijuana is an "unmitigated failure."
Liberal MP Hedy Fry said in an emailed statement that a 2013 UNICEF study found that Canada has the highest level of cannabis use among teenagers of all the countries in the developed world.
"Ms. Ambrose's ideology fails Canadians," Fry said.
Although medical marijuana can be legally obtained with a prescription, the Conservative government has made no secret of the fact that it disapproves.
"The Government of Canada does not endorse the use of marijuana, but the courts have required reasonable access to a legal source of marijuana when authorized by a healthcare practitioner," Health Canada's statement read.
Ambrose has been especially vocal on the issue, saying marijuana has not been proven safe nor effective as a medicine.
She rebuked the City of Vancouver in June for its decision to regulate the dozens of marijuana dispensaries that have flourished despite laws preventing pot from being sold online or in storefronts.
Ambrose said she ordered a more proactive approach to enforcing the advertising rules due to the rise of such dispensaries in cities across Canada.
"Dispensaries, whether they are online or a store-front, are illegal and they should not be allowed to advertise these illegal services," she wrote.
Marijuana advocate Jodie Emery said the government's opposition to advertising marijuana was based on "an ideological...rather than a scientifically health-based approach."
She said the strict ban on advertising did a disservice to Canadians who wish to inform themselves.
"Many patients, especially seniors in Canada's aging population need information about marijuana and medical marijuana," she told The Canadian Press. "It prevents the ability of Canadians to get information that they are interested in and require."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is expected to launch the federal election campaign as early as Sunday.
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