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Globe editorial: The Liberals begin Canada’s countdown to legal pot

And just like that, the Trudeau government has started the clock on the creation of a multi-billion-dollar marijuana industry in Canada, one as big as the beer industry. By the end of next year, pot will be just another lifestyle choice for Canadians, like deciding on a restaurant for dinner or which smartphone best expresses your special uniqueness. One day, you may end up knowing someone who works as a quality inspector on a joint-rolling assembly line.

It's a monumental move, and the fact that we knew it was coming doesn't lessen its impact now that it's here. Where the United States is moving state-by-state on this contentious issue, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet are legalizing an iconic and popular narcotic in one fell swoop on a national basis. It is a generational reform.

It is, moreover, a loud declaration by Canada that the so-called war on drugs has failed, the same way the war on alcohol did during Prohibition. Pot may be illegal in this country and others, but it is widely available and tolerated in more and more places.

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Canada, in fact, has the highest rates of youth cannabis use in the world, according to the government. Most of that pot is sold by organized criminals. Bill Blair, the former Toronto police chief and parliamentary secretary to Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, spoke of "gangsters in stairways" selling pot to children during Thursday's announcement of the proposed legislation, and of the need to find ways of restricting "youth access to cannabis."

This is the dodgiest part of the Liberals' justification for legalizing pot for adults. It is hard to see how giving a drug the imprimatur of government sanction, and making it available without risk of criminal prosecution, will reduce its use among any age group.

But the government has to say these things to try to calm fearful Canadians whose knowledge of marijuana is limited to a single viewing, years ago, of Reefer Madness.

What really matters is what Ottawa is doing in terms of harm reduction through regulation, and through tough criminal sanctions for impaired driving and selling to minors. On that score, the proposed legislation seems to be on the right track.

All the parts are there, at least on paper, for Ottawa to oversee the growing of marijuana and the manufacturing of safe products by licensed companies. The government is promising a "well-regulated" industry that tracks every product "from seed to sale," with the goal of cutting out the criminal element.

Adults will be able to carry and share up to 30 grams of dried pot, and grow four plants at home for personal use. In keeping with the spirit of legalization, anyone under 18 caught with a small amount (five grams) of legal pot will not face criminal prosecution.

Packaging and labelling that appeal to youth will be banned, and you won't be able to buy pot from a vending machine. There will also be strict limits on advertising and promotion that might be seen by a minor.

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There are stiff new penalties for dealers who sell illegal pot to people under 18, or who recruit children in their activities. There are also graduated fines for people caught driving under the influence of marijuana, and new rules that will make it easier for police to screen drivers for alcohol and drug use. One of the selling points for the Liberals is that the reforms will make it harder for suspected drunk drivers to avoid taking alcohol-detection tests.

Rules governing the distribution and sale of products will be handled by the provinces, with municipalities also getting involved through zoning bylaws – especially when it comes to controlling where the drug can be consumed publicly.

There is still, though, a lot of work to be done if the government is to meet its goal of making Canada a legal-pot paradise by July of next year. For one thing, Health Canada needs to be sure the supply is there when the drug becomes legal, which means licensing more producers as soon as possible. A lot of money is at stake.

The provinces and municipalities also have a lot of work ahead of them. The provinces, especially, will need to make the politically loaded decision of who gets to sell marijuana. Will the illegal dispensaries that have popped up all over Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver be part of the retail scene, or will they be cut out of the picture by the provinces, with licences restricted to drugstores or provincial liquor stores? A lot of money is at stake here, too.

Then there is the question of price and taxation. The government stayed away from those issues on Thursday. But it knows that this will become a critical question at some point, because price affects demand. Too high, and people return to the black market.

The Trudeau government has started off on the right foot down the path to legalization. But the next 15 months or so could make or break its plans. A lot of pieces need to come together to achieve the goal of the safe and regulated production, distribution, sale and possession of legal cannabis in Canada.

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