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Health officials discussed legalization of marijuana across B.C.

Health officials acknowledged there would likely be little progress toward legalization of marijuana while the anti-drug Conservatives hold power in Ottawa, instead suggesting such a radical change would likely come about only if the Liberals win the fall election.

Jeff Chiu/AP

As Vancouver struggled to regulate its explosion of marijuana dispensaries, top provincial health officials considered how they could legalize the recreational use of the drug across British Columbia.

In a series of e-mails released through a Freedom of Information request, the health officials acknowledged there would likely be little progress toward legalization while the staunchly anti-drug Conservatives hold power in Ottawa, instead suggesting such a radical change would likely come about only if the Liberals win the fall election.

As the city was pondering its pot-shop bylaw last April, Brian Emerson, a medical consultant with the provincial Health Ministry since 2003, told Vancouver Coastal Health's top doctor and the Provincial Health Officer that British Columbia could apply for a special exemption to federal drug laws, allowing it to move ahead on its own. The group was assessing the public-health rationale behind regulating Vancouver's 100 illegal dispensaries and discussed what the regulation of all marijuana use across the province could look like.

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"Given the emerging legalized markets in Alaska, Washington State, Oregon and likely soon in California it might make sense for B.C. to join that pack to complete the West Coast arrangement," Dr. Emerson said in e-mails released to The Globe and Mail.

He suggested the province apply for a Section 56 exemption to Canada's drug laws that allows the federal health minister to exempt any person or class of persons from any or all of the legislation "for a medical or scientific purpose or [if it] is otherwise in the public interest." Dr. Emerson said this provincewide effort in legalizing recreational pot use would be guided explicitly by "public health oriented goals and objectives" and would only set up government-run outlets in "accepting communities."

However, that scenario is extremely unlikely under the current Conservative government, which has strongly opposed any medical or recreational use of cannabis.

The Conservatives have battled in the courts to restrict patients' use and production of the drug and have repeatedly stressed the danger it poses to public health. Health Canada spokesman Eric Morrissette said, in an e-mailed statement, that such exemptions are "considered on their own merits on a case by case basis, taking into account potential risks to public health and safety," and that his department would not speculate on Dr. Emerson's strategy.

In their chain of April e-mails, one of Vancouver's health officers John Carsley, a medical health officer with Vancouver Coastal told his colleagues to expect movement on the issue "only if the federal Libs get in."

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has long supported legalizing marijuana and last fall endorsed the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health's call for the government to monopolize sales of pot, limit its availability and ban marketing of the drug.

NDP justice critic Françoise Boivin said if her party wins the Oct. 19 election it is unlikely to endorse such a scheme.

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"I'm not sure that's the way to proceed," Ms. Boivin said Thursday. "I think it's going one step too fast."

She said the federal NDP would likely create a panel of experts or a body, similar to the 1972 Le Dain Commission, to study legalization across the country. She said her party would expect the results of any analysis soon and would not move at "the speed that the file has progressed in the last few decades."

Canadians use cannabis more frequently than almost any other people in the world, with 40 per cent using it once in their lifetime and 10 per cent admitting to using it in the past year, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

John Conroy, a lawyer representing small-scale personal growers fighting to compete with the federal government's new commercial medical marijuana regime, called Dr. Emerson's strategy "a very innovative and creative suggestion that would enable the federal government to essentially try it out."

"That would be a way then for hopefully the province and the feds to work together to see what the best and most viable method of legalization could be," Mr. Conroy said. "Taking into account any concerns and coming up with a model that could work across the country and then having separate legislation."

Provincial Health Minister Terry Lake was unavailable for an interview, but initially endorsed Vancouver's dispensary bylaw in the face of what he called a "vacuum created by the federal government."

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A spokeswoman said that while the ministry wants the federal government to regulate dispensaries, as well as medical marijuana, there are no "plans to recommend or implement provincial legislation around this topic."

Dr. Emerson did not respond to a request for comment, but Vancouver Coastal's chief medical officer Patricia Daly, who was involved in the chain of e-mails with him, said such an exemption would be "very onerous." That's because her organization encounters trouble with Health Canada every year as it renews the exemption for InSite, Vancouver's supervised injection site, a process that is now more difficult after the Conservatives passed a new bill this year, she said.

"Ultimately the solution has to be a federal solution," Dr. Daly said of any push to legalize marijuana.

Perry Kendall, B.C.'s provincial health officer, agreed and said that if only B.C. legalized marijuana its government may have problems with pot tourists coming from other provinces to use the drug recreationally. Dr. Kendall said he and his colleagues across the province have not "been shy about stating" their support for legalization and opposition to "the current regime of prohibition and criminalizing cannabis [which] has been of extraordinarily limited utility in preventing use."

With a report from Ian Bailey

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About the Author
News reporter

Mike Hager is a general assignment reporter at the newspaper’s B.C. bureau. He grew up in Vancouver and graduated from the University of Western Ontario’s Huron College and Langara College. Before joining The Globe and Mail, he spent three years working for The Vancouver Sun. More

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