Pubdate: Tue, 10 May 2016
Source: National Post (Canada)
Copyright: 2016 Canwest Publishing Inc.
Page: A7


Good politics is not always bad policy. Take, for instance, the 
pledge made several years ago by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to 
legalize marijuana. It was good politics, and it will probably, one 
day, be good policy. But when?

The good politics part is obvious - the promise of legalization was 
an early opportunity for Trudeau, the rookie leader of the third 
party, to attract favourable attention. He was helped when the 
then-governing Conservatives reacted as if he'd proposed a national 
meth distribution program targeting innocent children. The Liberals 
better read the public mood, and reaped the benefits.

Legalizing marijuana will probably prove to be good policy, as well. 
It's an outdated prohibition, that has unofficially been left to 
police to enforce (or not) at their discretion for years. Any law 
that must be selectively enforced as a matter of routine is a bad 
law. Freeing up police and court resources to focus on more pressing 
justice issues, including production and trafficking of harder 
narcotics, is the right idea. Now that American states have also 
begun to legalize marijuana, the once-real threat of disruptions to 
cross-border trade has also been mitigated.

The devil will be in the details, of course, but timing is important. 
Right now, Canadians find themselves in a dangerous limbo - a 
government has been elected at least in a part to legalize 
recreational marijuana use, but marijuana use remains illegal. The 
uncertainty here is unhelpful, was entirely predictable and yet has 
been left to fester. Why?

Consider, for instance, recent news reports that Toronto has 
supplanted Vancouver as the cannabis capital of Canada. Since the 
fall, the number of marijuana "dispensaries" - charming term, that - 
has exploded. Up until recently, there were only a handful, and those 
were discreetly tucked away in parts of the city known for a fairly 
relaxed, bohemian attitude on such matters. Since the October 
election, however, that number has proliferated, surpassing 100 to 
seize the hemp crown from Vancouver. The new outlets are rather less 
discreet, the source and quality of the product is unregulated and 
they're spreading into residential parts of the city far removed from 
the typical pot havens.

Again, this is entirely predictable. Depending on the final form of 
the forthcoming federal law, many of these dispensaries may 
ultimately prove entirely legitimate and successful fixtures of the 
local business scene. But they may not. We don't know what 
restrictions will be placed on signage, advertising and locations. 
Will private outlets even be permitted, or will (as Ontario Premier 
Kathleen Wynne has already mused publicly) marijuana only be sold 
through provincially operated stores along the lines of the 
province's wine and spirits monopoly? Will the supply be centrally 
managed? Will there be restrictions on advertising? What sort of 
quality-control mechanisms will be in place?

We don't know the answers, which has itself become the problem. We 
don't know, the police don't know, bylaw enforcement officers don't 
know and entrepreneurs seeking to make an honest buck in a newly 
liberalized marketplace don't know. It was months before the Liberals 
even signalled when we could expect legislation - and that won't be 
until next year. In the meantime, uncertainty will prevail.

The free market and the public will always move faster than 
government - that goes without saying - but on an issue as sensitive 
as the sale of drugs to the public, it is particularly important that 
the government move quickly. A major justification for legalization 
is the desire to force out organized crime; instead we have a vacuum 
that all but invites criminal elements to fill it. Police lack the 
resources to provide effective control, and the motive to do so in 
any case. Why crack down on an industry that's about to be legalized, 
no matter how chaotic it may operate in the interim?

During the election, the Liberals were free with their promises and 
are only now discovering how difficult it can be to deliver. It 
should come as no surprise that legalizing marijuana is proving more 
complex than first imagined. But having promised to do so, and having 
reiterated its intention to do so, the government owes it to the 
public, to law enforcement and to municipalities to move as rapidly 
as possible. Languidly meandering towards an eventual set of rules 
won't do. The police need clear parameters and the expectation they 
will be enforced. Pop-up "dispensaries" peddling the equivalent to 
home-brewed moonshine in residential areas can't be tolerated. If the 
Liberals are serious about legalization, they must move quickly and 
would be well-advised to establish interim regulations to prevent the 
runaway abuse of the laws that is now the case. Governments are there 
to ensure laws are enforced, not to expose them to contempt.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom