August 18, 2017

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Hazy federal weed laws could harsh provinces' mellow

Like, dude, where’s my consideration?

That sentiment, though almost surely expressed in slightly less stoner-toned lexicon, is no doubt being shared by provincial officials across Canada in the wake of last week’s release of the federal government’s long-awaited plan for marijuana legalization.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

ADRIAN WYLD / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

With a pair of bills tabled last Thursday in the House of Commons, the federal Liberals delivered on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 2015 campaign promise to make pot legal in Canada, a seismic legislative shift that will make ours the first G7 country — and the second in the world after Uruguay — to make cannabis use a legal activity in all of its jurisdictions.

This will, of course, inspire intensely mellow celebrations Thursday on the grounds of the Manitoba legislature — and in parks and squares across Canada — as weed aficionados mark what will be the second-to-last time the annual 4/20 celebration in this country carries a protest element over pot’s illegality.

The Liberals’ new bills C-45 and C-46, which will become law by July 2018, create the broad-strokes framework for making marijuana legal. Much of the grunt work involved in implementation, from distribution and pricing to education and law enforcement, will fall to the provinces. And that has led officials in several of those provinces to state that more time is needed to prepare individual jurisdictions for the complexities of legalization.

The age for legal purchase, possession, consumption and (in limited quantities) cultivation of cannabis is set at 18 in the newly introduced bills, but each province will have the option to adjust that benchmark to suit its own needs. The relatively strict laws concerning pot-impaired driving and the provision of marijuana to minors will be imposed by the federal government, but it will be the provinces’ job to enforce such laws.

(There’s no small irony in the fact that while one of the selling points for pot legalization was that too many Canadians were getting stuck with criminal records for something Mr. Trudeau’s government-in-waiting didn’t think should be a crime, the Liberals’ new legislation could theoretically impose a jail term of up to 14 years — which is also the maximum sentence for manslaughter in Canada — on an 18-year-old student who sells weed to a 17-year-old friend.)

Also left to the provinces are such less-than-minor issues as dealing with the social costs of widespread legal marijuana consumption among adults, the administration of education and addiction programs and the continued enforcement of laws targeting the illegal sale of weed, which will undoubtedly continue to serve underage consumers and cost-conscious pot smokers unwilling to pay the tax-included (and inevitably higher) price at authorized dealers.

The federal government will determine how (and how much) legally distributed marijuana will be taxed, and it remains unclear how much of that revenue — projections of the tax windfall range from $600 million to as much as $5 billion annually — will be distributed back to the provinces.

There is much to be negotiated and clarified. And a limited number of months in which to do it.

For the federal government, bills C-45 and C-46 amount to a totally awesome announcement that delivers on the Liberals’ dankest-of-the-dank campaign pledge. And if the hipster PM who promised it gets to bogart all the credit without doing much of the hard work, all the better.

What follows for the provinces, however, could be something less than an excellent adventure.

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