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Clearing the smoke: MP Bill Blair tries to clarify cannabis confusion

Legalized pot sales will keep kids safe, former police chief says

April 29, 2018
Kim Zarzour

Canada is moving into a "summer of cannabis confusion”, the head of Ontario’s Safety League (OSL) warns.

“We have kids who think it’s already legal. We’ve got parents who don’t know if it’s legal ... People who are going to be using it on boats because they can, undersupervised kids who are going to be home [and accessing it], the edible piece that is very complicated ... and an awful lot of blogging creating more confusion.”

Brian Patterson, president of the OSL, was speaking to a public forum held in Richmond Hill on Apr. 29, hosted by Aurora-Oak Ridges-Richmond Hill MP Leona Alleslev with Richmond Hill Mayor Dave Barrow and former Toronto police chief and current Scarborough Southwest Liberal MP Bill Blair.

The 50 people who gathered at Richmond Green Secondary School to discuss legal pot formed a diverse group, from recreational users to pharmacists, safety experts, addiction counsellors, those who use cannabis for medicinal purposes, those who invested in cannabis on the stock market and parents concerned about drug use and their children -

But there was one thing they all had in common: whether for or against, they were passionate about pot.

The panel first heard from a parent concerned that legalization will allow children as young as 12 to smoke marijuana, pointing to what she sees as loopholes in the legislation.

“With all due respect, that is completely incorrect,” responded Blair, who is known as the “pot point person” for the federal government.

“For purely political reasons, people have been misrepresenting this legislation and it’s dangerous. Let me assure there will be an absolute prohibition -- enforceable prohibition -- on every young person between the ages of 12 and the age of majority.

“This is a drug of health and social risk and it’s not the government’s intention to increase its use.”

The problem, he said, is the only way to currently enforce that prohibition is by “criminalizing our kids”.

Unlike alcohol -- which requires underage drinkers to steal from a parent’s liquor cabinet, get an older person to purchase or find a fake ID -- kids say it’s easy to find someone to sell them pot.

That presents a significant risk to their health, Blair said. As well, those who purchase are being exposed to criminals and if stopped by police, they could end up with a criminal record that will follow them for the rest of their lives.

Under the new federal legislation, cannabis will be treated similarly to alcohol: police will have the authority to seize the drug and issue a fine and other restorative justice without giving a child a criminal record.

Funds from sales will be directed toward cannabis education, he said.

Jeff Mole, president of the Community Enterprise Network, voiced his support.

“As a parent, I’d be mortified if my 20-year-old had a criminal record and was precluded from travelling to the U.S. and impacted his ability to get a good job. It’s absolutely the right thing to do from that standpoint and from a criminal eradication standpoint.”

“Shoving out the criminals” is a key goal of legalization, Blair added.

Blair said criminals are making $20 million a day selling marijuana. “It’s the easiest money organized crime makes.”

They control 100 per cent of the cannabis market and people have no idea what they’re consuming, its potency, pesticides and chemical makeup.

Under the new system, he said, pot purchasers will be supporting legitimate businesses that are accountable and pay their taxes; a portion of the sales profits will be reinvested in addiction research, prevention and treatment.

“Organized crime is not going to go gently into the night and give away $8 billion in opportunity. But for the first time ever we’re going to give their customers a legal choice, a safer choice. And a whole bunch of their customers are going to walk away.”

And because there will be economies of scale, he said, the new government-regulated producers will price out organized crime suppliers.

Richmond Hill resident Sherry Bennett noted that the new law will allow the growing of four plants per household.

“Isn’t that where children are?” she asked.

“There are households everywhere that grow four other kinds of plants,” Blair said, “and quite frankly, a philodendron leaf is far more dangerous to a child.”

Municipalities will be able to manage the growing of cannabis -- in the same way they manage homes that wish to raise chickens, for example -- deciding on such issues as smell abatement or proximity to schools. Condo boards will also be able to pass their own rules.

It was the lingering confusion over how the regulations will roll out that caused the Town of Richmond Hill to say ‘no thank you’ to a request from the province to host one of the first legal pot shops, Barrow said. Some segments of the population are open to regulation, others “want nothing to do with it … I don’t know who’s in the majority. For my community, I just care about how to manage it.”

“There is still confusion all over the place,” agreed John Sargent. The Aurora resident wanted to know how police will deal with those who use cannabis for medical reasons and want to drive.

Blair warned against it.

“It’s a mind-altering drug that affects your cognitive decision-making, your motor skills, your judgment ... And, frankly, with great respect to medical marijuana users, I don’t care why it’s in your system; if it’s in your blood it’s in your brain and if it’s in your brain you shouldn’t be driving.”

While the two-hour discussion grew heated at times, it remained civil, Alleslev noted, adding she hoped the event provided clarity to an issue that will take some time to unfold.

“It’s not going to happen overnight. We are going to monitor it to ensure the objectives we want to achieve are actually being achieved ... But that’s why we did this town hall. Hopefully there are at least 50 more people today who are less confused.”