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Pardons, impairment, provincial approvals linger in new pot regime

It will be legal to light up a joint in October in Canada, but those who have been convicted of marijuana-possession offences will maintain a criminal record.
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Farm "budtender" Wing Chan displays cannabis products available at the dispensary's Douglas Street store in Victoria on Wednesday, June 20, 2018.

It will be legal to light up a joint in October in Canada, but those who have been convicted of marijuana-possession offences will maintain a criminal record.

Victoria NDP MP Murray Rankin said Canadians can consume cannabis recreationally without criminal penalties beginning Oct. 17, but upstanding citizens with a record for simple pot possession will remain unable to coach soccer or apply for certain jobs.

Rankin has long fought for a private member’s bill to expunge the criminal records of those convicted of marijuana possession.

“It’s outrageous, people come to me all the time and say ‘My child can’t coach soccer because they have record for possessing a substance that will be perfectly legal as of [Oct. 17],’ ” Rankin said.

The government has said that such action would be premature and the discussion on pardons can take place only after the current law is repealed and replaced through Bill C-45.

Rankin said his bill is drafted and he intends to introduce it in Parliament the day after proclamation.

Kirk Tousaw, a Vancouver lawyer who focuses on cannabis issues, said amnesty for people charged with simple possession is critical to repairing the harms of cannabis prohibition.

“Recognizing that prohibition is bad policy and has caused a lot of harms to Canadians is an important first step and we have to figure out how to address those harms,” Tousaw said.

“Canadians deserve an apology for being victimized by these bad laws.”

Canada is the second nation, after Uruguay, to fully legalize cannabis for recreational purposes. Canada first banned cannabis in 1923. Medical marijuana was legalized in 2001.

“It’s a very bold experiment,” Rankin said. “We’re the only G7 country that’s done this.”

A companion law to crack down on drivers impaired by alcohol and drugs has not yet passed.

“I know the government is anxious to have this in place at the same time,” Rankin said.

Tousaw is concerned about arbitrary limits on THC levels for drivers despite a lack of scientific evidence on how THC contributes to impairment.

A limit on THC levels for drivers “disproportionately impacts medical consumers, as they always have these levels of metabolites in their system and would be effectively banned from the roadway,” Tousaw said.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said getting rid of prohibitions on cannabis makes sense, but argues the bill is not without its flaws, mainly the “highly punitive” criminal punishment for someone sharing cannabis with someone under age 18.

“I understand the government’s intention to discourage and prohibit people under 18 having access to cannabis,” May said.

“It’s out of proportion to say that someone who isn’t making money trafficking in cannabis, but is actually just sharing with a friend — if that friend is under 18 and even if they didn’t know it — could end up with jail time.”

The original cannabis bill allowed for five grams of possession by minors, but included stiff penalties for adults who shared or sold marijuana to anyone under legal age.

An amendment was proposed to allow for “social sharing” of cannabis between teens two years apart in age or between parents and minors, mimicking the legal framework for alcohol. The amendment did not pass.

Rankin is also concerned about whether high excise taxes on marijuana might fuel an unregulated black market in the drug.

“The goal was to get it out of the hands of the black market and out of the hands of kids,” he said.

“If the tax is too high, people will continue to buy it from illicit sources.”

Victoria dispensary operators say they’re relieved to finally have a legalization date to work toward, but are anxious for the province to open the online application portal so retail cannabis shops can be considered for provincial approval.

Existing private dispensaries will have to apply for a licence through the province and receive zoning permission from their local government.

All B.C. pot shops — both private and government-run stores — must purchase wholesale cannabis from the Liquor Distribution Branch.

“If [the province] doesn’t say tomorrow ‘B.C. applications are open’ then there will not be enough time for a private retailer to be open at the time of legalization,” said James Whitehead, who owns Medijuana cannabis dispensary on Gorge Road East.

Allan Lingwood, chief compliance officer for Farm dispensary, formerly called Farmacy, said potential cannabis retailers without a brick-and-mortar shop will likely not be ready for Oct. 17.

But he said “competent” cannabis retailers in municipalities such as Victoria and Vancouver, which have already established regulatory regimes, should be able to sell legally compliant product by October.

The Ministry of Public Safety did not give a date for when applications will open to private cannabis retailers.

“We’re now focused on developing the regulations and supporting policies for the implementation of our provincial regulatory regime,” Mike Farnworth, B.C.’s solicitor general and public safety minister, said in a statement.

“We are also working on provincial public awareness and education campaigns, to ensure British Columbians have the information they need regarding legalization and our provincial regulations when they come into force.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the Oct. 17 date during question period in the House of Commons on Wednesday.

Trudeau said the government delayed the timetable for lifting the almost century-old prohibition on marijuana at the request of larger provinces, including Quebec, which asked for more time to make the transition to a legal regime for regulating the production, distribution and consumption of cannabis.

The Senate approved Bill C-45, the bill establishing the new legal regime, on Tuesday after seven months of intensive study and debate.

Senators also dropped their insistence on amendments to the bill, most notably one that would have authorized provincial and territorial governments to prohibit the home cultivation of marijuana plants if they choose.

Trudeau and his ministers were basking in the glow of finally delivering on one of the Liberals’ biggest campaign promises in 2015.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould called the legislation — which still requires royal assent before it becomes law — “transformative.”

“C-45 marks a wholesale shift in how our country approaches cannabis,” she said.

“It leaves behind a failed model of prohibition, a model that has made organized crime rich and left our young people vulnerable.”

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

kderosa@timescolonist.com

— With files from Joan Bryden, the Canadian Press, in Ottawa