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Marijuana legalization presents both potential political risks and gains for Liberals, say insiders

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One the one hand, the Liberals are keeping a key election promise, but much will depend on what the reality of legalized marijuana looks like.

There will be both “a lot of risk” and “a lot of reward” at stake for the Liberals in their plan to legalize recreational marijuana in Canada by the summer of 2018, say Hill insiders and political players.

On the upside, the successful execution of a legalized regime in time for the next federal election will be seen as a win for the Liberals. But between now and then, a lot has to be worked out; from regulations with the provinces, to how the Senate will take to the bill, not to mention how public opinion evolves on the issue. 

Will Stewart, a former Conservative staffer at Queen’s Park and managing partner at Navigator Ltd., who represents a number of clients in the cannabis industry, said there is both “a lot of risk” and “a lot of reward” at stake for the Liberal government in legalizing recreational cannabis.

If and when the legalization package passes, further hurdles could come for the government in the form of potential court challenges, said Mr. Stewart, pointing to early questions raised over the constitutionality of changes around impaired driving laws.

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“At the end of the day, I think the bill that we’ve seen will pass relatively unchanged through the House. I think the big risk here of this bill is in the Senate and all the uncertainties that come with the independent Liberals of the Senate, the Independent Senators, and the Conservative Senators that still make up a huge block of votes in the Senate. That’s where a huge amount of uncertainty will be for this piece of legislation,” said Mr. Stewart.

Several sources The Hill Times spoke with pointed to legalized marijuana as part of a progressive Liberal election platform that brought in a new group of young voters into the electoral process for the first time, who will be key to the party’s continued success.

However, Mr. Stewart and others pointed out that legalized pot might not be embraced by many new and first-generation Canadians, where the Liberals also found a lot of support in the 2015 election.

“We know that some of the cultural communities are certainly a little bit more conservative in their outlook on this, but if you ask someone from the same cultural community who was born here or raised here how they feel about it, they might be just as happy to light up a joint as anybody else,” said Angus Reid Institute executive director Shachi Kurl.

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And by the time the October 2019 election rolls around, Canadians will be able to judge the reality of legalized marijuana, not just the idea.

“Whether it’s the Affordable Care Act in the United States or the Phoenix pay system, sometimes new systems do not roll out perfectly,” said Greg MacEachern, a former Liberal Hill staffer and senior vice-president of Environics Communications.

“The fact that there may be political risk in this I think is superseded by the fact that we need to do a better job of protecting our kids and we need to do a better job of keeping our communities safe. … So a certain amount of political risk is acceptable. I think that’s what Canadians expect of us in order to do what’s right,” he said.

On April 13, the government introduced two pieces of legislation in its effort to legalize marijuana. Otherwise known as the Cannabis Act creates a legal framework controlling the production, distribution, possession, safety standards, and sale of marijuana that would allow adults in Canada to legally possess and use small amounts of recreational marijuana from licensed providers. It also creates new Criminal Code offenses—in some cases punishable by up to 14 years in prison—for selling or giving marijuana to minors, though there will be no criminal offence for youth who possess small amounts of legal pot. It would allow adults to posses up to 30 grams and grow up to four plants at home.

The second bill, Bill C-46, or An Act to amend the Criminal Code (offences relating to conveyances), revamps Canada’s current impaired driving laws to make it illegal to drive within two hours of having had an illegal level of intoxicants in your blood, and gives law enforcement new powers to request roadside tests for intoxication.

The plan to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana in Canada is one of the most significant public policy changes pursued by a federal government in recent memory, said Mr. MacEachern.

“We’re the second country to do this [after Uruguay] but really the first major government to introduce this. This is brand-new territory,” he said.

Mr. MacEachern called the announcement of the marijuana legislation “one of the government’s best days thus far in 2017. It showed a government calm and in control of a major policy shift.”

He said the government appears to be “erring on the side of caution and trying to establish that this was a very thoughtful process and one that they didn’t take lightly.”

He noted the government’s choice of wording, discussing “strict control” and “risks” associated, is seemingly aimed at those who aren’t so sure about it.

Joe Jordan, a former Liberal MP and senior associate at Bluesky Strategy Group, said there were two ways the Liberals could have played this—coming out in tie-dye T-shirts or in Mountie uniforms, “and they went with the Mountie uniform.”

“They were clearly putting a fence around this to alleviate fears that the country was going to turn into one great big Woodstock concert,” he said, adding that the message was received that it’s not going to be a “free for all.”

“This is a winner for them. I don’t think there is any political risk in it at all. … I think they’re on solid ground there,” said Mr. Jordan, a former Liberal MP.

According to polling data released by Angus Reid on April 20, 63 per cent of Canadians surveyed said they favor of the marijuana legalization legislation, which shows a growing shift in public support for legalized marijuana. In 2001, polls showed less than half of Canadians agreed with recreational pot being legal. But even now, 31 per cent of respondent said cannabis legalization is a bad idea.

Angus Reid’s Ms. Kurl said the Liberals have likely scored a win on this with younger voters by keeping a key election promise, but there’s risk in being “able to competently manage what is going to be a really big transition in how law enforcement, how the legal system, how society adapts to and transitions to this new reality.”

The recent poll numbers showed that people aged 18 to 34 and British Columbians were the most supportive of the bill, while Quebecers and people aged 55 years and up are the least on-board. The research also found that large majorities in Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, and Atlantic Canada feel age restrictions should be higher than the proposed federal minimum of 18.

As well, 66 per cent of people surveyed said they don’t think the legalization plan will stop young people from using.

Blair continuing as frontman, Wilson-Raybould, Philpott, Goodale to work in lockstep

Sources said Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould (Vancouver Granville, B.C.) and her department took the lead on drafting the legislation, and she will continue to take the lead on it, including fielding questions in the House. Mr. Blair will continue to be the public-facing lead for the Liberals on this public policy issue.

Already Mr. Blair has travelled across Canada to meet with senior provincial and territorial officials, police and fire chiefs, bylaw enforcement, and public health officials, among others. He said he expects many departments to have officials get involved in the ongoing talks, including Global Affairs, Finance Canada, Labour, and the regional development agencies.

“All of them will have issues that will need to be addressed,” Mr. Blair said.

Health Minister Jane Philpott (Markham-Souffville, Ont.) and Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Ralph Goodale (Regina-Wascana, Sask.) also have ongoing roles to play alongside their Justice counterparts in shepherding the bill through cabinet and caucus.

Health Canada has set up a Secretariat for Cannabis Legalization and Regulation that will be leading the process at that department. As well, this year’s federal budget earmarked $9.6-million over five years for a public-education and awareness campaign on marijuana.

Ms. Philpott is expected to answer health-centered questions on Bill C-45. Mr. Goodale will be concerning himself primarily with the border questions related to the new regime and how the U.S. administration will deal with Canadian travelers. It will continue to be illegal to transport marijuana over the border.

Mr. Blair said the biggest challenge will be getting the provinces and territories all on board and on the same or similar pages when it comes to the regulatory frameworks.

“Each of the regions have different perspectives and priorities with respect to this issue … and so working within that is a challenge,” he said. “But I think it’s an appropriate challenge and we’re committed to doing it right.”

Mr. Blair said a considerable amount of discussion has taken place with the senior levels of government in the provinces and territories, and this will continue.

With so much left to be determined, it’s expected that lobbying of provincial governments by marijuana producers will spike.

Global Public Affairs’ Darrell Dexter, the former Nova Scotia premier who is leading the firm’s cannabis service, told The Hill Times that the federal government’s approach is generally in line with what the industry wants, and said he thinks completing the process by the government’s intended timeline is doable.

“There will be some rough edges in the legislation that will need to be sanded off through the process, and that’s entirely normal,” Mr. Dexter said.

Mr. Stewart said his sense is that plans at the provincial levels are “more robust” than what those governments are “letting on in the press.”

For provinces with elections set to take place between now and July 2018, including Ontario and British Columbia, Mr. MacEachern said he expects they’ll wait until the election is passed to move on regulation plans.

If provinces and territories don’t have a retail framework for recreational marijuana in place by the time legalization takes effect, the federal law sets it up so that consumers from those places can buy it through a mail system similar to the one used for medical marijuana.

Red Chamber is where the ‘big risks’ lie

With a majority in the House of Commons, the government’s biggest challenge getting it through won’t be with MPs, but rather with the Senate, insiders said.

Mr. Blair said both Bill C-45 and C-46 are priority bills and he’ll be advocating for early progress on them. But he said it’s difficult to predict how far they’ll get before June, when the House is scheduled to rise for the summer.

Mr. Stewart raised the possibility the government will prorogue Parliament this summer, as has been speculated. He said it “makes a lot of sense,” politically, to do so halfway through a mandate. But he added it would kill the legislation and probably make it “impossible to hit the July 2018 timeline.”

Whether or not prorogation this summer would hobble marijuana legalization efforts would likely depend on how far legislation gets in the House by the end of the June session, with a maximum of seven sitting weeks to go. If it doesn’t get past second reading, reintroduction would likely be less of a setback. As has been done in the past, the House could give unanimous consent to reinstate a bill in the new session at the same stage it was at before prorogation.

Mr. Stewart said he expects the bills to make it to the Senate “relatively unchanged.” He said the Red Chamber is where the “big risks” lie, and where the most lobbying effect could still be had.

“With the independent Liberals of the Senate, the Independent Senators, the Conservative Senators that still make up a huge block of votes in the Senate, that’s where a huge amount of the uncertainty will be,” said Mr. Stewart.

It’s expected the directors of parliamentary affairs for each of the ministers involved will also be making efforts to engage with Senators individually.

Mr. Blair said there’s a “good understanding” from the Parliamentarians he’s spoken with that they “can’t delay unnecessarily.”

Sources say there has been no negative reaction to the marijuana legislation from within the Liberal caucus, and that what was announced wouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone who had been speaking with Mr. Blair in the lead-up to the bill’s tabling, or who had read the Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation’s report.

 

SOURCE: The Hill

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