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Trudeau's Handling Of The Cannabis Industry Risks Public Safety

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As a firefighter/paramedic I have been on the front lines of public safety for over two decades. A couple of years ago I testified as an expert witness (fire officer) in the Allard vs. Canada case where a number of licensed cannabis growers brought a constitutional challenge against the government of Canada who had shut down the program that allowed them to legally grow their own medical cannabis. Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis was brought in by the Crown to testify as an expert witness who had concluded that legal home grow ops represent a public safety hazard and ought to be abolished. I looked at Garis's data and drew entirely different conclusions.

His data showed that legal grow ops had a high rate of non-compliance with safety codes when initially inspected by fire prevention officers. This wasn't surprising to me, when we go out and do inspections of any occupancy our job is to find problems, and most of the time we do. Finding problems is half the job however, the other half is educating the owners and occupants about how to improve the safety of their occupancies. Garis's data showed that on re-inspection those occupancies that were originally found to have deficiencies were now compliant with code. This is evidence of success. These occupancies are now safer than they were prior to interface with public safety experts.

cannabis canada
Medicinal marijuana bud inside the flowering room at Tweed in Smith Falls, Ontario, on Dec. 5, 2016. (Photo: Lars Hagberg/AFP/Getty Images)

There is no doubt that grow ops can cause fires, but kitchens are the leading cause of structure fires. The prohibitionist approach to public safety would be to ban kitchens. Does this mean people would stop cooking at home? Of course not. It means they would take all sorts of risks to cook their meals and avoid getting caught. I would expect to see the amount of fires caused by cooking to skyrocket if kitchens were prohibited. Home cooks would reroute power and gas lines and take terrible risks, there would be no interface with building inspectors ensuring that kitchens are properly engineered and built, I would never get the chance to educate a homeowner about how to make their kitchen safe and prevent fires.

If we are concerned about public safety we need to make it more attractive for people to grow, distribute and consume cannabis legally than illegally so that there is engagement with public safety mechanisms. Right now it is far more attractive for people to grow and consume illegally. Cannabis is easy to produce, you just need seeds and dirt, and there is a high demand for it. A regime that restricts legal supply through onerous licensing and prohibitions will drive up illegal supply to meet the demand.

We were seeing a trend towards improved public safety. Storefronts offered customers a safe place to buy cannabis from businesses that had a vested interest in developing a reputation for quality and safety. Small- to medium-sized growers have been operating in the sunlight where public safety officials like me could inspect and educate. Cannabis was emerging from the shadows and the problems associated with illicit activity were fading away.

All the Trudeau government had to do was notice what was going on and end the rules that made it difficult for public safety to emerge. Instead, over the past month we have seen a hard crackdown on storefront cannabis dispensaries. Coordinated raids have occurred across the country and some business owners are facing financial ruination and life in prison at the same time the Trudeau government has announced legalization by the summer of 2018. The message to the cannabis industry is loud and clear, "Fall in line with the regime, or else."

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Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Mar. 21, 2017. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The federal government is poised to adopt the report of The Task Force on Marijuana Legalization and Regulation as the way forward and this is cause for serious concern from a public safety perspective. The Task Force recommends a requirement for a federal license to grow cannabis commercially. If you're one of the hundreds of small- to medium-sized dispensaries currently operating in the sunlight your days are numbered. If you are a customer of one of these dispensaries you will be faced with a choice of big government-approved corporation or local black market dealer.

It's not clear why customers would choose the low quality, limited access, unreliable cannabis that a few big government-approved corporations would provide over locally grown craft cannabis. Imagine if growing tomatoes required a federal license and there was a coordinated effort to raid local growers and sellers who did not have a federal license. Would people stop putting tomato seeds in dirt? Would people drive past an unlicensed farmer selling big, fresh, juicy tomatoes from a roadside stand on their way to a licensed grocery store which may have some small, pale, nearly-spoiled tomatoes in stock? It is naive to imagine people are going to follow stupid rules that they can easily avoid following, yet this naivety has permeated cannabis prohibitionism and continues to permeate the thinking of cannabis legislators.

It is easy to see why black market dealers, the opiate industry and politically connected corporations might prefer the Trudeau regime. For them it is a license to print money. If you are looking for public funds you stand to profit as well. Police departments are going to have to crack down hard on black market competitors, fire departments are going to have to battle more blazes, and paramedics are going to have to treat more opiate overdoses as drug users turn to more dangerous alternatives.

Unfortunately onerous federal licensing means that most of the mechanisms that improve public safety will be hamstrung because most of the growing and distributing will be done in the shadows instead of the sunlight. If you care about public safety, a civil society, a lower tax burden, emergency responder safety and freedom from oppression then you ought to be wary of what is coming.

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