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Legalizing marijuana will come with strict controls, MP Bill Blair says

Illegal pot dispensaries are appearing in greater numbers across Canada.

Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail

Liberal MP Bill Blair wants to make it clear the growth and sale of legal marijuana in Canada will not be a free-for-all.

In an interview, the chief architect of the country's new marijuana regime frequently used such words as "control" and "strict regulation" as he discussed the federal government's options.

The former chief of the Toronto Police Service supports legalization, but mainly as a tool to restrict access for young people and to deal with the social and health problems caused by the drug.

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Mr. Blair, who is Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice, is keeping his options open as he maps out the path to legal marijuana in Canada. However, he is not siding with the proponents of casual and widespread access to the drug for recreational purposes.

"There is a need for some control," he said. "Our intent is to legalize, regulate and restrict. There needs to be reasonable restrictions on making sure that we keep it away from kids, because I think that is very much in the public interest. We also have to ensure that the social and the health harms are properly managed and mitigated, and that can be done through regulation."

Illegal pot dispensaries are appearing in greater numbers across the country. In addition, some advocates of legalization say that the Trudeau government's promise to make pot legal means police should immediately stop charging people for possessing marijuana.

On the other hand, some people in the marijuana industry say only licensed and regulated operators should be able to grow and sell the drug. In particular, a number of investors in the medical marijuana business, which was heavily regulated by the Conservative government, want similar rules and restrictions for recreational pot.

Mr. Blair promised that a federal-provincial-territorial task force on the legalization of marijuana will study various models in Canada and around the world.

"The medical marijuana community has contributed quite significantly to the research and to some models that will be very useful in helping us ensure that if there is going to be a legalization and movement toward a strict regulatory regime, that it can be done in a way that is protective of people's health and all of the public health concerns," he said.

In particular, he insisted that pot users will need to know what they are smoking or ingesting under the new system.

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"One of the things that we have to be concerned with is to ensure that it's not adulterated in any way; that we have some understanding of its quality and its potency, so that if it is to be used by an adult population, that it can be done safely and in a healthy way," Mr. Blair said.

He said the structure of the task force remains unclear, and refused to indicate when the government will be ready to change the Criminal Code to implement legalization. Mr. Blair acknowledged there are starkly different points of views on the issue, promising to hear from all sides.

"The best policy will be evidence-based, and we will gather that evidence," he said. "There are many people who have concerns, and I want to hear those concerns, and there are many people who have advice, and we will listen to them."

James McIntosh, a professor of economics at Concordia University in Montreal, said the government will have to find the right spot on the spectrum between "laissez-faire" and "centralized control." Dr. McIntosh said users simply "want to be able to get good stuff cheaply and hassle-free," while many medical experts still have concerns over the use of the drug, especially by youth.

Mr. Blair said that as he consults on the issue, he will not be swayed by individuals, including his friend and former colleague at the Toronto Police Service, Kim Derry.

In a recent interview, Mr. Derry said the new system should get rid of the "goons" that operate in the marijuana business. Mr. Derry is part of a project seeking a licence to grow medical marijuana north of Toronto, and said he would not hesitate to make his views known to Mr. Blair.

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However, Mr. Blair said: "There is a wide diversity of opinion, and it's important that those opinions be heard, but I'm not responding to any particular lobbyist or individual on this."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

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