Conservative leadership candidates are split over marijuana policy, with Kevin O'Leary the only serious contender voicing support for legalization and Maxime Bernier refusing to say whether he'll vote in favour of the Liberal legislation to lift the prohibition on the recreational use of cannabis.
Mr. O'Leary said up to 30 per cent of the population uses the drug medicinally and recreationally, and he believes the Conservative party membership understands it has to embrace "a much larger constituency."
"I think the party has moved into the place now where they understand it's going to be part of the Canadian culture," Mr. O'Leary said in an interview this week. "In order for the Conservative Party to be relevant, to actually build a platform that can remove Justin Trudeau from power in 2019, we have to have a very large tent."
Fellow leadership contender Kellie Leitch, a doctor, has been highly critical of both Mr. O'Leary and Mr. Bernier, who has expressed support for legalization in the past. "Legalization would make this drug more available and accessible to children and, as a pediatric surgeon, I'm very concerned about the effects it has on the developing brain," she said in a short campaign video.
Ms. Leitch's spokesperson said Ms. Leitch would repeal the Liberal law and supports decriminalization as laid out in Conservative Party policy, which recommends that peace officers issue tickets for the simple possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Erin O'Toole and Andrew Scheer, two other leadership hopefuls, are voicing displeasure with the Liberal legislation, but say they wouldn't recriminalize the drug and would instead focus on improving the bill. Michael Chong's spokesperson said Mr. Chong supports an approach "that doesn't ruin a person's future" for possessing small amounts of marijuana and reduces harm, but wouldn't specify his preferred policy.
Lisa Raitt said she will vote against the legislation but won't reverse it after it passes into law. "If we run an election in 2019 on making it illegal again, we'll lose," she said. But she said she thinks the age should be increased from 18 to 25. "My fear is that we are going to be going down a path of American-style commercialization and promotion of marijuana.
"I don't want them marketing to kids."
The Liberals' legislative package includes one bill to create a new federal-provincial regime to produce and sell cannabis, and another to overhaul and strengthen laws related to impaired driving by users of both marijuana and alcohol.
Mr. O'Leary said he supports legalization with strict regulations regarding impaired driving. He said that includes any proposals brought forward by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, such as zero-tolerance for THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the substance that gives marijuana its intoxicating effect, for Canadians under 21 years old. He also supports giving police the ability to use roadside saliva testing to detect drug-impaired drivers.
"I'm for regulating it, taxing it, controlling it federally, going under the guidelines of what MADD brings forward and listening to the police in terms of how they're going to enforce it," Mr. O'Leary said.
He added that if the bill is adopted as planned by July, 2018, "it is going to be a great thing for business. It's also going to be a great thing for government revenues." He said he'd prefer any taxes to be returned to federal – not provincial – coffers.
"I'd prefer this to be a federal mandate, controlled by the feds, and administered as such," Mr. O'Leary said. "I'm not for giving more power to the provinces. They've abused it badly."
Mr. O'Leary, who is not a member of Parliament, said he supports the Liberals' proposal to punish those who provide cannabis to youth with up to 14 years in jail. The bill sets the possession limit of dried cannabis at 30 grams, but leaves edible cannabis products to be legalized at a later date. Mr. O'Leary said edibles should also be government-regulated.
When asked if marijuana should be decriminalized until the law passes, Mr. O'Leary said, "I'm waiting to see actually what's tabled as the rest of the country is, too. Now you're getting very specific."
He later said that until the bill passes in law, current laws shouldn't be changed.
"There's no grey law. When it becomes law, we'll abide by that law. Meanwhile, we'll abide by the existing laws," he said.
Mr. Bernier told the Huffington Post last August that he supports legalization in principle, but would comment on the Liberal plan once it was tabled in the House. Last week, Mr. Bernier told reporters in Ottawa that he was in favour of decriminalizing marijuana, which would mean that users would no longer face a criminal record for possession. However, that position does not go as far as the current government proposal to legalize marijuana for adult consumers and ensure its distribution in government-run stores.
"Maxime wants to take the time to read the legislation and different experts analysis on that bill before commenting," said a spokesperson for Mr. Bernier on Tuesday.
Mr. Bernier has already been endorsed by pot activist Marc Emery, who based his choice on the fact that he shares libertarian views with the Conservative leadership candidate. The position in favour of decriminalization falls well short of Mr. Emery's calls for legalization.
"I'm supporting the Free Minds/Free Markets candidate Maxime Bernier," Mr. Emery, who is known as the Prince of Pot, said on his Facebook page last week.
Mr. Emery added he will do everything in his power to "make sure Kellie Leitch never becomes leader."
Mr. O'Leary said the policy of decriminalization sends a "very confusing message.
"At the end of the day, you either regulate and tax it or you don't," he said. "You basically want to take it out of the hands of criminal distribution."