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Canada is advancing plans to become the first Group of Seven nation to legalize recreational marijuana nationally, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is keeping key details hazy and allowing arrests to continue while parliament debates his plan.
Four of Trudeau’s ministers are expected to unveil the government’s proposed law Thursday in Ottawa, with the government targeting legalization by mid-2018 for a market estimated to reach C$6 billion ($4.5 billion) by 2021. Shares of marijuana producers like Canopy Growth Corp. and Aurora Cannabis Inc. have surged more than fourfold over the past 12 months despite warnings that the legislative process could drag on.
Until the new law passes, Canada’s approach remains strict. Companies producing medical marijuana face costly security rules while police continue to raid pot shops springing up in anticipation of legalization. It’s prompted criticism that Trudeau — who is 45 and has admitted to smoking marijuana himself — is moving too slowly.
“This legalization is not legalization at all,” said Jodie Emery, a prominent activist who was arrested last month along with husband Marc Emery, Canada’s self-styled “prince of pot.” They were charged with trafficking, conspiracy and other offenses related to marijuana raids. “These regulations and restrictions the Liberals are introducing are designed to be a new prohibition,” she said.
Trudeau’s proposal — expanding on medical marijuana, which is already legal in Canada — is expected to spur merger activity and insiders at Canopy and Aurora are already taking profits. The governing Liberals have a majority in the House of Commons that will all but guarantee the bill’s passage. The country’s Senate typically rubber-stamps legislation, though has grown more unpredictable since measures by Trudeau boosted its independence.
The proposed law comes after a federal task force recommended leaving key details, such as distribution and the legal age, up to individual provinces. The panel, which studied legalization efforts in Uruguay and individual U.S. states, also recommended barring elaborate packaging, with the industry expecting the government to rebuff their requests for branding and promotion methods they argue will help them fend off black-market suppliers.
Granger Avery, a physician who is president of the Canadian Medical Association, said he expects the government will set a minimum age of 18 and allow provinces to increase it as they see fit. The group had urged a minimum age of 21, and restrictions on marijuana potency until age 25, when the human brain typically is fully developed. Avery also called on Trudeau to pour money into marijuana research and education aimed at, for instance, encouraging pregnant women not to smoke pot.
“It’s really about protecting the vulnerable populations,” Avery said. “We just need to make sure the public health perspectives, the research, the education and the protection for vulnerable populations and treatment programs are available and funded.”
Trudeau’s Liberals have been criticized for continuing to enforce marijuana laws over years while they arrange legalization. “Canadians, especially young Canadians, continue to face charges for something that will soon be legal,” Alistair MacGregor, a lawmaker with the opposition New Democratic Party lawmaker, said this week.
‘Short on Regulation’
Others warn the measures go against Trudeau’s key objectives of reducing the access young people have, and diverting marijuana revenue from criminal groups.
“You don’t reduce harms caused by a drug by dramatically expanding availability for the target audience,” said Robert Solomon, a professor of law at Western University in London, Ontario and director of legal policy for Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada. “The federal framework is long on legalization, short on regulation. It’s dumping all the heavy lifting in terms of regulation onto the provinces.”
Trudeau campaigned in 2015 on legalizing consumption and incidental possession, while toughening penalties for providing marijuana to minors, driving while under the influence and selling it outside the new system.
It’s led to complaints from advocates Trudeau’s system is being set up to favor the licensed producers, some of which have ties to the ruling Liberal Party. Emery, the activist, says she didn’t think the legalized market would be revolutionary.
“I anticipate a lot of talk, a lot of discussion, but not much change with respect to the on-the-ground experience,” she said. “Which is that marijuana users know where to get marijuana, they don’t trust government or stock-market pot, and they never will.”