• Daniel Demers

Provinces need to soon decide how to move forward with legalization

At the First Ministers’ conference held a couple of weeks ago in Edmonton the provincial and territorial governments made it clear that they were prepared to oppose the federal government’s timetable for legalization if the government didn’t do more to work with the provinces and provide financial assistance for the looming costs associated with the impact of legalization at the community level. While this could be seen as just another example of politics and posturing, the implied threat poses a serious challenge to the Trudeau government’s timeline for legalization.

If the Trudeau government is to make good on its plan to legalize recreational marijuana by next July, provinces, territories, municipalities and first nations have less than a year to adopt new policies and regulations and make significant new investments in the programs, training and enforcement needed to ensure that public health and safety are protected. While some may argue that eleven months is ambitious but still doable, experiences in jurisdictions that have already legalized the recreational use of marijuana have shown that programs to protect public health and safety should be in place well before legalization occurs. While some provinces like New Brunswick remain optimistic about what can be accomplished in such a short time, other province like Manitoba are working to ensure that any negative impacts of legalization will be blamed solely on the Trudeau government.

While still popular, the Trudeau government has come under increasing criticism for failing to deliver on key election promises, and many see the PM’s pledge for legalization by July 2018 as a litmus test for the government as it reaches the halfway point of its mandate. Active opposition to the Trudeau government's agenda by provinces claiming concerns about public health and safety would create a difficult choice for the PM: abandon your timeline and probably fail to fulfil this pledge before the next election, or face ongoing criticism for jeopardizing public health and safety for political purposes.

While the Trudeau government could adopt a strategy of pushing forward on their legislative agenda regardless of provincial opposition, by doing so they may be jeopardizing the very timetable they are trying to deliver on by setting up a major showdown in Senate. If the provinces and territories and national organizations like the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police continue to tell Canadians that they don’t have the resources they need to protect public safety, the Trudeau government could find it very difficult to pass their legislation in time to meet their promised deadline. While the Liberal majority in the House could push it through, there would be a heavy political price to pay and Conservative and Independent senators could still stall legislation on the basis of protecting provinces and the health and safety of Canadians.

It would seem the only way forward is to respond quickly and generously to the provincial and territorial requests for assistance in the five key areas they identified, ranging from road safety and enforcement to public education and cost coverage. But with the Parliamentary Committee starting its public hearings in September and the Provincial-Territorial Working Group on Cannabis Legalization due to report back to the premiers by November 1st, there is precious little time for the Trudeau government to act.

The clock is ticking, and soon the provinces will decide if they will be willing partners in one of the most significant and complex policy issue shifts of a generation, or act on their threat by proclaiming their continued support for legalization but blaming the Trudeau government for dropping the ball.