OTTAWA — MP Bill Blair, the former Toronto police chief now leading the Trudeau government’s marijuana legalization project, says provincial liquor stores may be the most reasonable place from which to control legal cannabis sales because of the ability to restrict youth access to the drug.
Blair, as parliamentary secretary to Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, has been asked to craft the government’s policy, working with a three-member cabinet team and a federal-provincial-territorial task force that hasn’t yet been struck, the justice minister’s office said.
Blair defended the Liberal plan from a public safety perspective on Friday while acknowledging that the government has “some work to do” to address public concerns.
He wouldn’t speculate how long it would take to conduct “wide consultations” with public health, law enforcement and provincial and territorial counterparts before a bill is drafted. But Blair said the federal government is looking at the experience in Colorado, Washington state and other jurisdictions that have legalized marijuana sales and distribution where a range of stores, cafés and other retail outlets have sprung up to supply legal marijuana.
“We have pretty robust systems of regulation for other intoxicants in this country, mostly overseen by the provinces and so we’ve already got a model, a framework we can build on here,” he said. “But we want to learn from the experiences of places like Colorado and Washington.
“I think there are certain modifications or adjustments that we may have to make for cannabis as opposed to alcohol, but I think there is already a strong system in place for the control and regulation” of marijuana sales here, Blair said.
Should the federal government go that route, it will find willing partners in Manitoba and Ontario. Premier Kathleen Wynne said last month that legalized marijuana should be sold at provincially owned and regulated Liquor Control Board of Ontario outlets, which are staffed by trained, unionized employees.
“It makes sense to me that the liquor distribution mechanism that we have in place at LCBO is very well-suited to putting in place the social responsibility aspects that would need to be in place,” Wynne said Dec. 14.
Blair said it is “very difficult” for a 14-year-old youth to walk into a liquor store where alcohol is retailed in Ontario and buy a bottle of booze. “You’re going to come up against a government employee who’s got regulations to enforce and is going to ask for identification and if a person’s under age, they’re not going to be able to buy that.
“And that’s a far better way to regulate access (to marijuana) for kids than leaving it up to some criminal in a stairwell. Frankly, in most urban centres across this country, it is far easier for a kid, an under-aged youth, to acquire marijuana than it is to acquire alcohol.”
Blair said there still needs to be strict regulation and a penalty for supplying alcohol and cannabis to youngsters “and those laws need to be enforced, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be done under the criminal law.” He pointed to a 2014 study produced by the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health that recommended legalization with strict regulation to control the social and health harms associated with marijuana use. “All of that made perfect sense to me as a police chief and as a person responsible for community safety.”
Blair’s appointment to help steer marijuana law reforms won early praise from Canada’s police chiefs, who continue to voice caution about the proposed changes, after calling in 2013 for Ottawa to give police discretionary power to issue a ticket for simple possession of small amounts of marijuana. It was a recommendation the Harper government never acted on.
Saskatoon police Chief Clive Weighill, who is president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, said Blair has a “formidable challenge” ahead but would understand policing concerns given his background.
Weighill said there will be “many questions and concerns” that will need to be addressed, depending on how the government decides to move ahead with its pledge. “From a policing perspective, youth access to marijuana will always remain a concern as will the impact on impaired driving. There will be a significant impact on the training of our officers and the need for more drug recognition experts in the field,” he said.
The Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police said it supported the statement by the Canadian association. Blair served as president of both during his time as Toronto police chief.
Bill Blair on marijuana
Have you ever smoked pot?
No and, interestingly enough, I worked on the drug squad in Toronto for years. I worked undercover, I’ve purchased a lot of marijuana but I’ve never used it.
And why is that?
I’ve never used any illegal drug. A personal choice. Growing up my dad was a cop and I didn’t want to disrespect my father as a young teenager and then when I became a police officer myself I worked in that area but never felt inclined to use any illegal drug.
Not even curious to know as a cop why people would be drawn to it?
Nope. It was my job. I worked in that community, in the culture for years.
I actually worked in organized drug crime as well for about four years, manned the organized drug crime units in Toronto.
I’ve dealt with that as a police officer for a long time, but I’ve never used it. … One of the first times I had to buy drugs as an undercover officer, I had to buy hash oil. It was in an apartment.
Somebody brought out a wine bottle with a hole in the bottom of it and offered it to me (to smoke hash oil), and I didn’t have a clue what to do with it.
What did you do?
You talk fast. You buy the drugs. And you get out fast.
How do you think that frames your thinking about the legalization issue?
I was a police officer for 38 and a half years, but I was also responsible as a police chief for the safety of communities and the safety of kids in the city…I came to believe there was a better way.
Simply dealing with marijuana with a criminal sanction and a criminal sanction alone wasn’t achieving what we wanted to do.
It wasn’t keeping it out of the hands of kids; it wasn’t preventing organized crime from controlling its distribution and sale in our neighbourhoods; it wasn’t reducing the violence and victimization that takes place in poor neighbourhoods; it didn’t address the disparity of the impact of that law enforcement that takes place in minority communities much more than in majority communities.
Do you think the public’s ready?
I think we’ve got some work to do. I think we’ve got to listen to people, we’ve got to listen to their concerns and then we’ve got to address those concerns, and that’s a bit of work, but it’s necessary.
But I think the public is open to a smarter approach to this particular issue and just doing nothing, and allowing the criminal law to be more or less ignored…I don’t think we have much prospect of succeeding in trying to address the things that concern us about marijuana, particularly use by youth...with the current reliance on the criminal sanction.
I am actually quite confident that we can do a much better job through strict regulation."