September 25, 2018

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Manitoba's cannabis fines are unreasonably harsh

Editorial

Posters promoting the 1936 propaganda film Reefer Madness contained such alarmist slogans as “The Burning Weed With Its Roots in Hell" and “The Deadly Scourge That Drags Our Children into The Quagmires of Degradation!”

Eighty-two years later, the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Pallister seems needlessly adamant that, on its watch, cannabis will not transform Manitoba into a quagmire of degradation. Its salvos include substantial fines to curtail the use of cannabis in places both public and private.

Without employing traditional public channels such as a news release or conference, the Manitoba government last Friday quietly posted regulations related to fines on a government website, using opaque legal language that would glaze even the trained eyes of well-paid lawyers.

For Manitobans who don’t routinely study The Provincial Offences Act for updates, here is a synopsis: when cannabis is legalized across Canada in five weeks, Manitobans will face hefty fines if they smoke or vape cannabis in public places, including sidewalks, parks, beaches, restaurant patios and campgrounds. For example, smoking cannabis in a provincial park, such as Birds Hill, will net a fine of $672.

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Posters promoting the 1936 propaganda film Reefer Madness contained such alarmist slogans as "The Burning Weed With Its Roots in Hell" and "The Deadly Scourge That Drags Our Children into The Quagmires of Degradation!"

Eighty-two years later, the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Pallister seems needlessly adamant that, on its watch, cannabis will not transform Manitoba into a quagmire of degradation. Its salvos include substantial fines to curtail the use of cannabis in places both public and private.

ANDREW RYAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister </p>

ANDREW RYAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister

Without employing traditional public channels such as a news release or conference, the Manitoba government last Friday quietly posted regulations related to fines on a government website, using opaque legal language that would glaze even the trained eyes of well-paid lawyers.

For Manitobans who don’t routinely study The Provincial Offences Act for updates, here is a synopsis: when cannabis is legalized across Canada in five weeks, Manitobans will face hefty fines if they smoke or vape cannabis in public places, including sidewalks, parks, beaches, restaurant patios and campgrounds. For example, smoking cannabis in a provincial park, such as Birds Hill, will net a fine of $672.

The province wants Manitobans to only use cannabis on private property, which will be a considerable obstacle for the people who don’t own private property. Where, exactly, should legal cannabis be used by people who rent rooms, apartments and houses in which smoking is prohibited by landlords?

When former health minister Kelvin Goertzen was asked this question about marijuana use last March, he told reporters such people ought to visit a friend who does own property. "It’s difficult to put in place legislation that deals with everybody who may not have property or may not have friends or associates," he said.

In addition to snuffing out cannabis use in public places, the Manitoba government is also peering over backyard fences onto private property to control the personal plots of household gardeners. A fine of $2,542 faces any Manitoba homeowner caught growing even a single cannabis plant, even though gardeners in most other provinces will be allowed to cultivate up to four plants for personal use.

With penalties so exorbitant, more people will be inclined challenge the ticket and force the state to prove its allegation, thereby continuing to needlessly clog the courts with cannabis-related charges.

It's time for the Pallister government to accept the change that is inevitable and lighten up.

The magnitude of the marijuana fines won't surprise anyone who has observed the Pallister government repeatedly digging in its heels on cannabis legalization — by pushing for a deadline extension, by being last to sign a federal-provincial agreement to share the tax revenue from legalized cannabis, by refusing to follow the pack and let households grow their own for personal use.

But it's time for the Pallister government to accept the change that is inevitable and lighten up. A good start would be to reduce such excessive fines.

Yes, smoking and vaping cannabis should not be allowed in public places. The acrid smell offends some people and there are legitimate concerns about the health effects of second-hand cannabis smoke.

But a more reasonable fine structure might mirror the city of Winnipeg bylaw regarding tobacco smoking, which prescribes fines of $200 for people cited for lighting up a cigarette outdoors. The newly posted penalties regarding cannabis use seem more reflective of the Pallister government's enduring disapproval of legalized cannabis than of any earnest attempt to police it.

When it comes to cannabis law, the province would do well to heed an old Chinese proverb: "Do not use a hatchet to remove a fly from your friend's forehead."

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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