Fine, decriminalize or legalize – marijuana debate sparks up

Wayne Young comments@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on March 15, 2014
Marijuana clone plants that are used to grow medical marijuana are displayed under a light in this Canadian Press file photo.
Canadian Press photo

Ever since Liberal leader Justin Trudeau told students – and the national media – in Charlottetown he supports its legalization, marijuana has been dominating news headlines here.

In an interview with Huffington Post a few months later, Trudeau said he smoked marijuana several times, most recently three years ago after he was elected to the House of Commons.

Then everyone wanted to know what other MPs might have sampled the mood-altering drug that’s currently illegal to use in Canada – other than for medicinal purposes.

The Island’s lone Conservative MP, Fisheries Minister Gail Shea, said she’s never tried it and she chastised the Liberals for even considering its legalization. Among Island Liberal MPs, Lawrence MacAulay said he’s never tried it, but Wayne Easter and Sean Casey both said they took a puff years ago – long before they were elected to public office. All three Island Liberal MPs are on record as supporting legalization.

In Charlottetown, and in numerous appearances since then, Trudeau made it clear he’s not advocating marijuana use for young people. Quite the opposite, in fact. He says legalization would take marijuana profits away from criminal organizations and allow government to tax and regulate the drug. It would actually be easier to keep it away from children who would need an ID to purchase it, much the same as alcohol, he said.

Like it or not, change is coming.

Recent federation legislation meant large indoor medical marijuana farms would be allowed to produce, package and distribute marijuana to be sold at whatever price the market would bear. Those who use marijuana for medical purposes will not longer be able to grow it themselves or to buy it from a grower designated by Health Canada. Now marijuana will only be available from commercially regulated growers.

That’s where Charlottetown city council picked up the marijuana baton and changed its bylaws to pave the way to the province’s first medical marijuana production facility.

This week, the unnamed developer finally stepped into the public spotlight. Edwin Jewell told The Guardian he hopes to break ground on a medical marijuana production operation later this spring, pending clearance and licensing from Health Canada. It will be built in the BioCommons Research Park.

But not everyone is happy. At least one woman who uses medical marijuana to treat Crohn’s Disease went public with her fears that the price will skyrocket and she may not be able to afford it.

A few days ago, Justice Minister Peter MacKay weighed in. He’s been one of Trudeau’s fiercest critics for his stand on legalizing marijuana, but now he seems ready to soften up the rules around marijuana possession – perhaps allowing police officers to issue tickets to people caught with small amounts of marijuana rather than laying charges. That’s quite a concession from a minister and a government known for aggressively beefing up drug-related penalties, most famously a mandatory six-month term for growing as few as six marijuana plants.

This issue isn’t going away any time soon.

The Toronto Star is reporting that some grassroots New Democrats will push to have the party endorse legalization of marijuana at a policy convention this weekend. Six riding associations, including one in Malpeque, P.E.I., want the party’s policy book to be amended to reflect the change, The Star reported.

With the Conservatives’ stand on marijuana possibly softening, the Liberals favouring legalization and NDP favouring at least decriminalization, it’s sure to pop up as an issue in the federal election campaign next year.

Some polls suggest there’s good reason why the political ice against marijuana use may be melting. A Forum Research Inc. poll released late last summer suggested that more than two-thirds of Canadians support either decriminalization (34 per cent) or legalization (36 per cent) of marijuana. Only 15 per cent want the law left as is.

It’s hard to argue that the current laws are keeping marijuana away from young people. A study released by Unicef last year suggested that teenagers in Canada use cannabis more than any other developed country. The study showed that 28 per cent of 15-years-olds admitted to having used cannabis in the past year. Would that number improve if the product were to be legalized and regulated? Is it time marijuana — like alcohol — is declared legal so willing adults in a regulated setting can use it?

The Conservatives are already signaling a willingness to revisit the issue and with the NDP and Liberals on record as supporting even more far-reaching measures, change is assuredly on the way.

An increasing number of Canadians would say it’s about time.

Wayne Young is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.