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Court rulings aside, legalizing pot still a pipe dream

Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason.

There were few subjects the former federal Conservative government despised more than pot. It knew where the majority of Canadians stood on the issue – in favour of legalization – but it also knew that the party's core supporters would have no part of that.

There may have been no better illustration of the struggles the Tories had with the matter than the system it created for the licensing and distribution of medical marijuana, the same one that was discredited and toppled by a Federal Court judge Wednesday.

Once upon a time, Canadians with authorization from a physician could grow their own cannabis plants or designate someone to do so for them. Under that program, the number of production licences went from fewer than 500 in 2002 to more than 22,000 by 2012. Uncomfortable with the proliferation of both users and growers, and unwilling to give Health Canada the budget to properly monitor and audit the system, the Harper government decided to change the rules.

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Under the new plan, the number of growers was restricted and their operations more tightly controlled. Products had to be ordered online. Costs for users became prohibitive, which was either by design or a happy consequence for the anti-pot government (depending on which theory you subscribe to). It didn't take long for a disgruntled group of users to win a court injunction against the new structure. It was that challenge that led to the ruling that came out this week.

This is a good thing. The program set up by the Conservatives was designed to fail. After the injunction was granted, both the old and new systems were allowed to operate concurrently. This created a mess that the former government had no appetite for dealing with. In the absence of any leadership, dispensaries started popping up in Vancouver, almost in defiance of Ottawa.

Now the matter is in the hands of the federal Liberal government, which campaigned on the promise to legalize marijuana.

The new government has been given six months to straighten things out in terms of medical marijuana. Most likely, it will create a new plan that is a hybrid of the two existing models. It will give users the choice and accessibility to which the courts say they have a constitutional right, with the control over the substance (including standardization and testing) that is necessary.

What it does about the illegal dispensaries that have sprung up across the country is anyone's guess, although it's difficult to imagine a scenario in which a government intent on legalizing the drug tries to shut them all down. That ship has sailed.

If nothing else, the Federal Court ruling has drawn attention to the enormous stakes that surround the multibillion-dollar marijuana industry. Everyone wants a piece of it, including, as we learned this week, pharmacy chains such as London Drugs and Shoppers Drug Mart. Many are poised for the day pot is finally legalized in Canada, a day some believe is just around the corner.

How wrong they are.

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Marijuana will not be coming to your nearest government-regulated outlet any time soon. The Liberals are discovering that legalizing marijuana is easier in theory than practice. It would have an impact on international treaties, and there are complex border issues to be resolved. There are the country-wide consultations the government has committed to undertaking. There is a strong chance pot will still be illegal, technically at least, by the next federal election.

The good news for recreational users who don't have illicit sources is that it has never been been easier to obtain. There are about 500,000 medical-cannabis users in Canada over the age of 25, according to Health Canada. The number has sky-rocketed in recent years. Why? Because anyone complaining of the slightest bit of pain can get a prescription. Walk into some of the storefront marijuana dispensaries in Vancouver and you don't even need that.

Is any of this likely to change as a result of this week's court ruling? Nope. Probably the most significant outcome of the decision is that now people will be able to grow pot in their homes without fear they'll be thrown into jail for doing so.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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