No pot smoking in cars?

By ROB FERGUSON Queen's Park Bureau Mon., Aug. 14, 2017

When it becomes legal next July, recreational marijuana should be sold with more restrictions than that other weed — tobacco — says the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Ontario branch.

The group will release a position paper Monday calling on the province to ban pot smoking in cars with a “zero tolerance” policy, cap the amount of THC in cannabis products and use all tax revenues from them to boost addiction and mental health services.

Staff selling marijuana products in stores should have special training akin to the Smart Serve program for bartenders, with what the CMHA dubs a first-of-its-kind “Cannabis Card.”

“We have an opportunity to start fresh with this,” Camille Quenneville, chief executive officer of CMHA’s Ontario branch, told the Star before the wide-ranging, 18-page submission was made public.

The provincial government will spend the coming months settling on an age of majority for recreational marijuana, deciding on a retail network of stores where it will be sold, developing a public education campaign and dealing with a host of regulatory issues.

Ontario has established a Legalization of Cannabis Secretariat to co-ordinate the effort on behalf of all government ministries. Medical marijuana is already legal.

Premier Kathleen Wynne has strongly hinted the age of majority for cannabis will be set at 19, the same as for alcohol — a position the mental health association supports.

But Quenneville urged the province to set strict advertising and marketing restrictions, as with tobacco, to “minimize the profile and attractiveness” of cannabis, while going one step further with plain packaging to downplay brand identities.

“We think that makes sense.”

Cigarettes are now kept behind closed doors in stores with brand logos visible on their packaging, but alongside explicit warnings about the health dangers of smoking.

The association’s push for pot tax revenues to improve addiction and mental health services is based on concerns that “there’s a link between heavy use and anxiety and depression and psychosis,” particularly if there’s a personal or family history or if cannabis use begins in the mid-teens, said Quenneville.

“There’s not nearly enough mental health services for the population,” she added, also calling for more extensive research on causal relationships between cannabis and mental health problems.

Mental health and addictions now account for 7 per cent of the provincial health-care budget and CMHA is pushing for an increase to 9 per cent, as recommended by the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

“The one piece we struggle with is young people who are at higher risk for mental health (problems),” Quenneville said, which makes a strong public education campaign critical to reach “emerging adults” in their teens and early 20s.

‎Efforts to make people aware of the dangers of cannabis are needed to combat any mindset that “if it’s legally available and it’s sold, how bad can it be?” she added.

Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins said last month that he wants to government to get out months in advance of legalization with a strong public education and awareness campaign, especially given medical concerns that cannabis can be harmful to people under 25 because their brains are still developing.

Quenneville agreed, saying “we need to get at it. A year from now (to the expected legalization date, ‎next July 1) is not a long time.”

On the concept of a “Cannabis Card,” Quenneville said it’s a logical step to certify that people selling recreational marijuana products have training on their attributes, risks and effects to better deal with customers.

“We don’t think it’s out of scope for marijuana, which can be more harmful. You have to have a level of knowledge.”

‎The proliferation of marijuana dispensaries also needs to be “cleaned up,” said Quenneville, whose association is urging the government to cut back the number of outlets where cannabis will be sold, to regulate hours of opening more tightly and to consider a non-profit retail model once legal sales begin next summer.

In the meantime, Ontario should be pushing the federal government to decriminalize, as soon as possible, the personal possession of 30 grams or less of cannabis, the CMHA recommends in the policy paper.

Youth offences on cannabis possession should also be decriminalized and existing penalties replaced with fine, community service or mandatory education or addiction programs.

“A lot of young people are being charged with possession,” said Uppala Chandrasekera, director of public policy for the mental health association.

For drivers and their passengers, strict enforcement of a ban on cannabis consumption of any kind in automobiles will be key to curbing impaired driving, the association added.

“A zero-tolerance policy would include both the driver of the motorized vehicle, as well as any passengers in the car. It is important that a clear message be sent to the public.”

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Pretzel Logic

Photos by Chris Young/CP and David Matthew/Getty

20-page document obtained by VICE shows the Ontario government's framework to sell legal weed contradicts what its own Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services is saying about enforcement and the black market.

Last month, Ontario revealed that come next year, it will be selling recreational weed through an LCBO-controlled monopoly, with 40 retail stores to start, followed by 80 in 2019 and 150 by 2020. During the announcement, Attorney General Yasir Naqvi said illegal pot dispensaries should consider themselves "on notice" and will be shut down through a proactive enforcement strategy. Ontario also opted to ban all public consumption of cannabis except at private residences and to push the legal age for purchasing and consuming weed up to 19, even though the federal government has set the legal age at 18.

However, VICE has obtained an internal briefing titled "Impacts of Cannabis Legalization on Police" that was presented by the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services (MCSCS) to the Future of Policing Advisory Committee on August 2, 2017. The MCSCS has confirmed the report's authenticity. Many of its points contradict both the policies laid out by Ontario and the federal government.

Dispensaries/organized crime

For all the tough talk from the province, the MCSCS report quite bluntly states "the illegal market will not disappear once cannabis is legalized (e.g. Illegal dispensaries will continue to operate)." In Toronto, the province has said there are 60-80 currently in operation. Many have pointed out that a mere 40 government stores to service a population of 13.6 million is unlikely to make a dent in the black market. It seems the government agrees.

Criminal justice system

One of the federal government's key promises has been to ease the burden of prohibition on the justice system. The federal Liberals' website states that "arresting and prosecuting these offenses is expensive for our criminal justice system" and that prohibition "traps too many Canadians in the criminal justice system for minor, non-violent offenses." However, the MCSCS document clearly says, there's an "anticipated increase in enforcement capacity pressures due to cannabis legalization." This is hardly a surprise, considering the federal government has already promised $274 million for policing and border enforcement related to cannabis legalization, but nonetheless it shows the province is fully aware that legalization won't clear up the backlog in criminal justice system.

Minimum age

Ontario has chosen 19 as the minimum age for purchasing and consuming weed and is also prohibiting people under the age of 19 from possessing any weed, even though the federal weed framework says youth could possess up to five grams without being charged with any crime. According to the MCSCS report there are several issues with Ontario's chosen route. It could force youth under 19 to continue to rely on the black market, and it could result in "border hopping" if the minimum ages differ between provinces. To that end, Quebec last week announced that it will go with 18 as the legal age for buying and consuming weed. The report also said creating a separate provincial offence for youth caught with weed will result in "increasing the complexity in enforcing for police officers." In other words, it will create a further burden on the criminal justice system.

Difficulties in enforcement

The MCSCS briefing outlined a number of aspects of legalization that will be tough for cops to enforce including:

  • Enforcing both the medical cannabis and recreational cannabis regimes. (No specifics were given, however, one can guess there will be challenges in differentiating between the two when it comes to things like possession, growing, and public consumption.)
  • Issues with "trying to accurately measure 30 grams of dried cannabis or equivalent in public." Thirty grams of possession in public is the legal limit set out by the feds.
  • "Deciphering when social sharing of cannabis does not constitute the facilitation of a drug transaction." So, how are cops going to distinguish between people sharing drugs versus selling them to each other?
  • Enforcing the ban on public consumption and impairment "given the different mediums of cannabis that can be consumed (e.g. edibles)." It's pretty easy to eat a gummy bear without attracting the cops' attention.

Public consumption

While the Ontario government has said public consumption will be banned everywhere but at private residences—weed lounges will also be barred—the MCSCS briefing suggests that's not a good idea. "Banning cannabis consumption in public could increase the risk of users turning to other mediums (e.g. edibles) which could lead to stronger impairment/effects," it says.

Growing

Under the federal plan, Canadians outside the medical regime will be allowed to grow four plants at home. Possession of more than than four harvesting plants could result in 14 years of jail. The MCSCS report said these plants could be "an additional source for organized crime." It also said it will be difficult to enforce the home grow ops because most police services "lack capacity for the anticipated magnitude of increased enforcement" and because you can't go into people's homes without search warrants. Another issue, the report says, is people could be criminalized for small amounts of overproduction.

 

Driving impairment

The report says drug screeners only test for presence of the drug, not impairment.

VICE reached out to Ontario's Ministry of the Attorney General for an interview, citing contradictions between this report and Ontario's legalization rollout plan. In response, Emilie Smith, a spokeswoman for the MAG sent a statement saying the ministry established a "dedicated secretariat" to coordinate the province's weed rollout that draws from the skills of 16 ministries, including the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services.

"The Ministry of the Attorney General developed, in close collaboration with partner ministries, a safe and sensible approach that focuses on the promotion of public health and safety, including road safety, the protection of young people, prevention and harm reduction," the statement said.

The MAG declined to take specific questions on this document.

Canada is slated to legalize weed by next July.

Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.

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Pot Heads

Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa, centre, flanked by Attorney General Yasir Naqvi, left and Health Minister Dr. Eric Hoskins on Friday unveiled the province's plan for a government-run marijuana monopoly. (CBC News)

Is it possible that the Ontario government will be the only entity in the history of civilization to actually lose money selling drugs?

Perhaps "only" is an exaggeration. We all knew that dealer in high school who smoked more than he sold, leaving him ultimately in the red. Or that guy whose mom found his stash and confiscated his product, compelling his frustrated customers to shop elsewhere.

But by and large, those who enter the marijuana business — which, for now, is still illegal — do so with the understanding that there is money to be made. Good money. The stuff practically sells itself, in fact.

But when you are a government known for its crippling overspending and regular financial boondoggles, the notion that one could actually lose money selling marijuana becomes a plausible outcome.

Marijuana monopoly

Ontario has revealed what could quite possibly be the most complicated, cumbersome, expensive legalization plan conceivable — one that is certain to maintain the black market while at the same time burdening itself with massive overhead and organizational costs.

Instead of pursuing the cheaper, easier option of developing a licensing framework for existing dispensaries and taxing the revenue — sort of like the province does with tobacco sales and, to a lesser extent, The Beer Store — Ontario will create a new government-owned and -controlled enterprise, which will have a monopoly over pot sales in the province. As such, it will be responsible for everything: purchasing, distribution, retail space, training, payroll and so forth, following the existing framework of the province's LCBO liquor stores.

The fatal assumption made by the province here is that a government-run marijuana monopoly will function the way its existing government-run alcohol monopoly does. It won't. For starters, it's much easier to produce your own marijuana than it is to distil your own vodka or make whiskey in your bathtub. Any idiot with a grow light and some seeds can do it — and they have been doing it for years.

That's the second point: the last major black market for alcohol in Ontario died with the repeal of the Ontario Temperance Act in 1924. The LCBO works, for better or for worse, because it's the only thing many of us have ever known. The government's new pot monopoly, however, will have to compete with an already robust and flourishing black market.

One could argue that the LCBO, in its early days, had to compete with a robust and flourishing black market also, but that black market didn't have the benefit of one-day shipping on Amazon Prime and private Facebook messaging. Today's market might not be so easily extinguished.

1 store for every 93,000 people

In order for this government-run operation to eclipse the black market, its product needs to be at least as accessible and affordable as what is currently available to recreational users. By this scheme, it will be neither.

Ontario proposes opening just 40 retail outlets in the province in 2018, the first year marijuana would be legal (if it becomes legal, but that's a separate discussion). By contrast, the government estimates there are around 70 to 80 dispensaries in Toronto alone, and those dispensaries typically don't close at 6 p.m. on Sundays and on all statutory holidays.

Eventually, Ontario plans to have 150 stores by 2020, which is roughly one store for every 93,000 people by today's population. Will that be enough to satisfy market demand? Who knows!

Wait — what am I saying? We do know: absolutely not.

Marijuana will also be available for purchase online, but if it's anything like the LCBO's online delivery service — which means buying now, after you've reached the minimum threshold, and receiving in a few days, after you've paid exorbitant shipping — it will exist only to remind Ontarians why they still have their dealer's number. If people can't get what they want from the province's stores, they will look elsewhere.

What's more, for a government that professes to be extremely concerned about people driving under the influence of marijuana, the limited number of retail outlets seems like it would actually exacerbate the problem by forcing Ontarians outside major city centres to drive long distances to pick up the product. 

What's the magical price?

Then there's the cost factor. Finance Minister Charles Sousa said at a press conference Friday that the price of pot will be low enough to compete with the black market, while not too low as to encourage consumption. In other words, this Goldilocks price will at once sustain a fleet of unionized workers and the government's characteristically bloated bureaucracy — to say nothing of the startup operating costs — but also be low enough to rival illegal suppliers (but not too low, of course).

If you believe this magical price exists — and bless you if you do — then you believe that the Liberals' last budget was "balanced," too.

Despite the likely higher cost and inconvenient access, some Ontarians will insist that they'll be more comfortable buying marijuana from a government-run store. That's fine. But there's little reason why those same Ontarians couldn't find comfort in buying marijuana from a government-licensed store that is subject to regular inspections, or even an independent dispensary where the government acts as the sole supplier.

Indeed, quality control would still be there, but those systems would come with the added benefits of more locations, longer operating hours, small business opportunities for investors, pricing set by the market instead of government and — perhaps most importantly — it would mean one fewer from-scratch project for this government to totally screw up. 

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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