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Editorial: Let there be public meetings

Organizer Annie MacEachern speaks during a public discussion on cannabis legalization held in P.E.I. on the weekend. MacEachern organized two public discussions after she discovered the province was not planning to host any. She said those looking for more information regarding cannabis legalization and can find it at the Facebook group “Lets Talk About Cannabis.”
Organizer Annie MacEachern speaks during a public discussion on cannabis legalization held in P.E.I. on the weekend. MacEachern organized two public discussions after she discovered the province was not planning to host any. She said those looking for more information regarding cannabis legalization and can find it at the Facebook group “Lets Talk About Cannabis.”

For a government that likes to tout its commitment to openness and public engagement, the MacLauchlan Liberals’ decision to forego public meetings on legalizing cannabis is disappointing.

After all, it was the province that issued a call for opinions from Islanders on how P.E.I. should adapt to federal legislation that will make marijuana legal by July 2018.

“Have your say on cannabis legislation,” the P.E.I. government website proclaims. “Share your thoughts on what cannabis legislation should look like for Prince Edward Island.”

But it seems government only wants your thoughts if they can be limited to the questions in a government-crafted survey or contained quietly within a written submission.

RELATED: P.E.I. government to open pot legalization ideas to Islanders

No public meetings will be held as part of this consultation. Only “stakeholders” will be granted meetings with government.

Government’s excuse for not holding public meetings is two-fold.

Firstly, it says the survey allows government to “focus the discussion on areas which the province actually has control over (i.e. legal age, distribution method),” arguing the timeline for implementation is tight.

Translation: the province doesn’t want to offer a microphone to those who might digress into areas that fall outside provincial jurisdiction.

It is true that public meetings can get derailed. But if it’s topical and something the public wants to bring up in a public meeting, shouldn’t our elected officials be willing to listen?

Secondly, government argues the survey is reaching more Islanders than public meetings ever could. A town hall might only draw a few hundred people whereas the survey has already reached 2,700 Islanders, government says.

While it is encouraging to see the survey getting a good level of response, it is also important to remember that some people might have ideas to offer that fall outside the parameters of a survey. Islanders could have fresh perspectives to share, or may simply want an open forum to talk about how they would like to see legal marijuana rolled out in P.E.I.

It’s certainly an issue that is divisive, with physicians and policy makers in jurisdictions across Canada disagreeing on the recommended legal age for recreational use and concerns about gaps in the ability to measure impairment levels.

There are also varying degrees of education and understanding among many when it comes to cannabis, even for medicinal use.

Government may not like the idea of going to public meetings on an issue that could elicit strong opinions.

But the best way to ensure good public policy is to encourage open dialogue and debate. It’s part of the foundation of our democracy.

A local woman who has taken to holding her own public meetings on the issue has raised some important questions that deserve broader discussion, including what role producers and retailers will play in this lucrative new market.

Limiting discussion on such an important policy change is not in the best interests of Islanders. Let’s really let Islanders have their say about what legalized marijuana should look like in Prince Edward Island – in public. 

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