December 17, 2017

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Opinion

Analysis: Manitoba Tories leave common sense out of cannabis legislation

18-year-olds will just spend an extra year getting their weed from the black market

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Justice Minister Heather Stefanson with at left, Blaine Pedersen, Growth, Enterprise and Trade Minister and Jeff Wharton, Municipal Relations Minister at the news conference in the Manitoba Legislative building Tuesday.</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Justice Minister Heather Stefanson with at left, Blaine Pedersen, Growth, Enterprise and Trade Minister and Jeff Wharton, Municipal Relations Minister at the news conference in the Manitoba Legislative building Tuesday.

Governments in Canada have been playing politics with marijuana for some time now. The promise to legalize cannabis helped Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his federal Liberals achieve a majority government in 2015, and now provincial governments across the country are coming to grips with legalization according to their own political principles.

Some provincial governments (Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick) are creating Crown corporations to be the new, legal marijuana dealers. Others (Manitoba, Alberta, Newfoundland) are letting the private sector run the stores. British Columbia just announced a retail solution that will include both the public and private sectors.

The governments of Quebec and Alberta will let citizens access weed at the age of 18, while Ontario, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, B.C., and now Manitoba are opting for 19.

The difference is, Manitoba's age of majority for cannabis is one year older than the age of majority for alcohol — unlike any other province that has unveiled its cannabis plans so far.

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Governments in Canada have been playing politics with marijuana for some time now. The promise to legalize cannabis helped Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his federal Liberals achieve a majority government in 2015, and now provincial governments across the country are coming to grips with legalization according to their own political principles.

Some provincial governments (Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick) are creating Crown corporations to be the new, legal marijuana dealers. Others (Manitoba, Alberta, Newfoundland) are letting the private sector run the stores. British Columbia just announced a retail solution that will include both the public and private sectors.

The governments of Quebec and Alberta will let citizens access weed at the age of 18, while Ontario, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, B.C., and now Manitoba are opting for 19.

The difference is, Manitoba's age of majority for cannabis is one year older than the age of majority for alcohol — unlike any other province that has unveiled its cannabis plans so far.

To hear Manitoba's Progressive Conservatives tell it, the new Safe and Responsible Retailing of Cannabis Act sets the minimum age at 19 in order to protect the developing brains of young Manitobans.

After this law passes, an 18-year-old Manitoban will still be able to stroll into a liquor store and buy enough alcohol to drink themselves to death. But they'll have to wait one more year to legally buy a joint.

"There's enough evidence that shows that (cannabis) can cause brain damage in people under the age of 25, and so we need to take into consideration the scientific evidence of that," Justice Minister Heather Stefanson told reporters Tuesday.

Politicians love "protecting the youth" because it's an easy win — no one in their right mind would ever argue against keeping kids safe. But the provincial government's logic here doesn't quite hold water.

The federal government's Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation recommended 18 as the federal minimum age for purchasing cannabis, while "acknowledging the right of provinces and territories to harmonize it with their minimum age of purchase of alcohol."

The task force also considered a minimum age of 21, as some U.S. jurisdictions where cannabis is legal have done, and a minimum age of 25, which was recommended by some public health professionals. Ultimately, the task force decided setting the minimum age at 25 would be "unrealistic because it would leave much of the illicit market intact." (That's because young Canadians are most likely to use marijuana in the first place, and they're going to get it from somewhere, regardless of the law.)

After this law passes, an 18-year-old Manitoban will still be able to stroll into a liquor store and buy enough alcohol to drink themselves to death. But they'll have to wait one more year to legally buy a joint.

That yearlong wait, this law implies, will somehow protect young people from the harms of cannabis. The public health experts would likely say that's nonsense, and reiterate the call to delay cannabis use until the age of 25. But since the Progressive Conservatives aren't going that far, why pretend setting the age at 19 will make any difference beyond political optics?

More importantly, why pretend setting the age at 19 will keep 18-year-old Manitobans away from marijuana in the first place? Instead of buying their weed from federally regulated producers with quality control and potency labelling, those 18-year-olds will just spend another year getting their weed from the opaque black-market "gangs" that have this government so worried in the first place.

Then there's the other head-scratcher in this bill: the ban on home growing of cannabis plants.

To be clear, it's well within the Pallister government's political rights to do so, even if the federal government believes Canadians should be allowed to grow up to four plants at home. Nor are the Manitoba PCs alone in this; Quebec's Liberal government has also decided to ban home cultivation.

That doesn't mean it's a good idea, even if the Manitoba Real Estate Association is thrilled their realtors won't have to deal with legal liabilities related to selling houses where cannabis has been grown.

On Tuesday, MREA's Lorne Weiss described the risks of home growing to reporters as follows:

"Depending on the size of the number of plants that are being grown, and the method that's being used to grow them, that can have implications in terms of the structural integrity of the home... also health consequences in terms of mould and impacting on the structure of the home as well if modifications have been made to improve the quality or the speed of the grow."

The ramshackle, mouldy grow-op depicted by Weiss sounds like a much, much bigger setup than the four plants that Ottawa wants to allow. Generally speaking, people aren't interested in making their own homes unlivable just to grow marijuana — that's the realm of criminals, who might fill a house up with hundreds of plants, grow as much as they can, and then move on before getting caught.

That kind of home grow-op will remain illegal after federal legalization. It seems highly unlikely that letting Manitobans grow as many as four plants in their homes would lead to the real estate market being flooded with a wave of rotting, decrepit drug dens.

After legalization becomes a reality next summer, some small percentage of Manitobans will want to try cultivating their own cannabis in their own homes. And why shouldn't they, if the plant is legal for adults to use under federal and provincial law? Don't think for a minute that banning home growing in Manitoba will keep people from growing, either. If Manitobans are already growing cannabis illegally, which they most certainly are, they're not going to quit now.

The Progressive Conservatives may score political points with their base by banning home cultivation and setting a higher minimum age to use cannabis. But they could score points with everyone else by treating Manitoba adults as, well... adults.

Solomon Israel is the cannabis reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press and its new online cannabis publication, The Leaf News. Read more at TheLeafNews.com.

solomon.israel@freepress.mb.ca

@sol_israel

Read more by Solomon Israel.

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