Liberal MP Bill Blair’s appointment as the government’s new pot czar is raising the eyebrows of critics who question whether Toronto’s former police chief is the best person to oversee the sensitive file.
On Friday, it was confirmed he has been picked to lead the government’s effort to implement the Liberal campaign promise to legalize marijuana.
“The problem is the government has said they want to characterize marijuana as a health issue, so it’s a bit strange and awkward to go to someone who only knows the law enforcement perspective,” said Alan Young, a York University law professor and leading marijuana law reformer.
It also creates some “weird” optics, Young suggests.
“How do you spend your lifetime trying to suppress something and open your mind trying to liberalize it? There’s a bit of a disconnect.’”
During Blair’s decade as Toronto’s top cop, the number of marijuana-related arrests rose steadily from 1,837 in 2005, the year he became chief, to 5,610 in the first 10 months of 2013, the last year statistics are available from the Toronto Police Service. He retired from the force in April 2015 before winning his riding in last year’s federal election.
But it wasn’t only Toronto that saw a steep rise in pot arrests during that time.
Statistics Canada reports there was also a 40 per cent jump in pot possession arrests across the country, saddling thousands of Canadians with criminal records for an offence soon to be legal.
The person behind this is former prime minister Stephen Harper, not Blair, says defence lawyer John Struthers.
Blair took over the chief’s job in April 2005. Months later, Harper’s tough-on-crime Conservative party was elected and ramped up a war on drugs.
“He (Blair) didn’t make the federal law nor did he take direction about how to enforce it. He was in the position where he had to enforce the law as it was whether he likes it or not,” Struthers said Friday. “Perhaps he ran for Parliament so he could become the lawmaker.”
Blair also became chief at a time when the city saw a record number of gun slayings – and while gang-related crime was also on the rise. Political leaders and the public demanded action.
In 2004, with Blair in the senior command, Toronto police began using a relatively new anti-gang law to conduct a series of raids to rid impoverished neighbourhoods of gun-toting gangsters.
These hugely expensive anti-gang projects quelled violence in the targeted areas. But the sweeps were also criticized for rounding up too many innocent people or those guilty of nothing more than having a few joints. Many charges were tossed out by the courts.
It was also a time when the force expanded the use of carding, or street checks, assailed by defence lawyers and others for leading to a racialized discrepancy of who got arrested and prosecuted for possessing pot.
Jeff Hershberg, another defence lawyer, says he has been involved in cases where Toronto police officers violated his clients’ rights by using the smell of marijuana to conduct illegal searches.
He finds it “ironic” Blair is now in charge of legalizing pot, though perhaps “he is simply the face of the reform,” he wrote in an email.
“Either way, I expect he will have lots of help from more experienced individuals seeing as how he is a new MP with little or no experience making laws (or abolishing them).”
He also recalls Blair, as chief, saying he didn’t make the laws and simply had his officers enforce the ones in place.
“This is his chance to put his money where his mouth is and prove whether his position as a politician is simply as a celebrity within the party or a true player.”