Canada plays follow the leader on pot laws

NANAIMO - Washington and Colorado lead the way on legalizing marijuana use.

It seems as though marijuana isn’t as bad as everyone thought.

Last week the federal Minister of Justice Peter MacKay floated the idea of allowing police to give tickets to people in possession of marijuana rather than haul them through the criminal justice system. He told the Ottawa press gallery that he directed his ministry to look at the issue and possibly draft legislation because the prime minister was open to the idea.

This could be the turning point in federal policy on marijuana.

Not long ago this same Conservative government was keen to force harsher sentences on pot producers, with mandatory six-month jail terms for people growing as few as six plants. That it’s now considering ticketing as primary enforcement on marijuana laws is a significant about face.

Don’t misunderstand the federal government’s intention – it doesn’t want to decriminalize or legalize marijuana possession, at least not at this point. Speeding is illegal, but you won’t go to jail for doing 95 in an 80 km/h zone.

Much of the kinder, gentler view on pot might come from how people’s views on marijuana have changed in the last five years.

When medical marijuana was allowed, the government tried to keep total control of the product. But the expense was high and the quality low, and most users went to small, local suppliers.

Those local suppliers were legitimized with licences to grow small amounts. Then Health Canada changed the rules again, eliminating small grow-op licences in favour of big ones, contracting pot growing to companies like Tilray, which is about to open up shop at Duke Point once the new regulations come into effect April 1. Effectively, pot production is being treated like other pharmaceuticals.

All of this has happened without much protest from the public, and considerably more enthusiasm and excitement. Tilray estimates it will hire between 40-60 people to work at the operation at Duke Point. More than 400 people contacted the company as part of a job fair a couple of weeks ago, with more resumes still trickling in.

Is marijuana simply not a big deal anymore? And did the Tories realize this when the (Justin) Trudeau Liberals’ polling numbers didn’t tank after the leader suggested legalizing earlier this year?

Perhaps it was the marijuana-legalization movement in the U.S., which the Conservative government often looks to for shaping public policy in Canada. In 2012, two U.S. states legalized pot – Colorado and our neighbour Washington state.

Last week Washington issued its first processor-possession licence to a business owner who is a veteran at growing medical marijuana. He promised to bring jobs back to eastern Washington with a 21,000-square foot facility. Sounds familiar.

Colorado’s governor presented a report to the state government that predicted tax revenues of $133 million in the next fiscal year, according to the Denver Post.

The bulk of the revenue is recommended to be earmarked for marijuana prevention and education among youth.

A small part of that budget is also set for enforcement. But police are saying it’s not enough to help keep up with the resources already spent on legalizing marijuana. Like cigarettes and liquor, marijuana must be regulated to guard against abuse, impairment while driving and other social ills that might follow in legalization’s wake.

Research into marijuana’s potential as medicine is fascinating and compelling. Perhaps easing of federal drug laws will help spur further research on its potential uses.