TORONTO — Canada's provinces, municipalities and Canadians themselves are only now really starting to come to grips with the pending legalization of marijuana, a forum heard Monday.
Former justice minister Anne McLellan, who headed a national task force on the issue, said while a majority of people are in favour of legal pot, most don't understand what that means. As a result, she said, people are now posing tough questions about what a legalized-cannabis world will look like.
"People are just starting to understand psychologically what this means — the transformation — moving from what has heretofore been a prohibited substance to legalization and regulation," McLellan said.
Leader of the federal task force on marijuana Anne McLellan listens to a question during a news conference in Ottawa on December 13, 2016. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
The last time something similar occurred was in the 1920s and 1930s when Prohibition ended, she said, so we don't have a lot of current experience to lean on.
What no one should be surprised about, McLellan said, is that most of the rules around the cultivation, sale and possession of pot and pot products will come by way of regulations that have still to be determined. Some people have lost sight of the fact that Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised regulation and restricted access along with legalization, she said.
Speaking to the Toronto forum organized by Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management, McLellan, whose task force reported to the government in December, identified several key issues that have yet to be worked out.
Foremost among them, she said, will be the legal age for using cannabis — the minimum 18 as proposed by the federal government or older.
"Historically, we have failed to ask our largest group of people who are using cannabis about their experiences."
McLellan said the task force considered 18 to be a reasonable minimum given that it is seen as "social marker of adulthood" — the age at which teens can join the military without parental permission or vote and it would have been "patronizing" under the circumstances to set the limit higher.
At the same time, the legal age limit will be up to provinces to decide, she said, with the expectation that it will align with their rules on alcohol or tobacco use.
Another hugely important but still fuzzy issue is that of drug-impaired driving, the forum heard. While Canadians have had decades of experience and court battles around setting limits for drinking and driving, doing the same for marijuana use has yet to happen.
"This is the most difficult political issue," McLellan said. "It is a problem now. It will be a problem after legalization. We need some pretty tough standards."
Provinces and municipalities, for whom legalization has not been a priority, she said, will have a large regulatory role to play now that the federal government is moving on the issue.
McLellan warned of potential chaos in terms of the Canada-U.S. border, especially with the Trump administration where "you see a much, much tougher line" toward cannabis. Marijuana is still outlawed federally, but eight states have legalized and a situation in which prohibition is pitted legally against legalization could be a "real mess," she said.
"We just don't know at this point how potentially this will play out," McLellan said, urging Canadians to be smart and cautious when crossing the border.
"People are just starting to understand psychologically what this means — the transformation — moving from what has heretofore been a prohibited substance to legalization and regulation."
During a panel discussion that followed McLellan's remarks, Joanna Henderson with the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health noted that Canadian youth — those aged 15 to 19 — are among the highest pot users in developed countries. The rate, however, tends to fall off after age 25.
While some potential mental-health risks have been identified with frequent cannabis use, Henderson said, much research has yet to be done to get closer to what those risks might be and what exactly the cause is.
"Most importantly, we need to start to listen to young people," Henderson said. "Historically, we have failed to ask our largest group of people who are using cannabis about their experiences."
The federal government plans to have an established regime for legalized marijuana by July 2018.
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