Don’t Mention The Weed….
Every day, politicians of all provincial parties add to the growing pile of promises: to improve health care, build more highways, stimulate the economy, and spend more on education.
But one issue politicians are keeping stashed away in this lacklustre campaign is what their party will do, if elected, to regulate the sale and distribution of recreational marijuana (cannabis). Unlike all those other promises, this issue comes with a deadline for the next government: weed will become legally available across Canada on July 1, 2018. Haven’t heard any slogans or much discussion around that, now, have we?
Legal, recreational toking is a little more than a year away, but all three party leaders say it’s ”too early” to offer a glimpse (let alone a “vision”) of where cannabis might be sold in Nova Scotia, who will sell it (public, private, or both kinds of vendors), how much it might cost (taxes included), or how new rules will be enforced to keep it out of the hands of under-aged users (and we don’t even know the legal provincial age yet).
Yes, it will be a brave new world next summer, and but bravery is a rare trait in a campaigning politician who prefers to tiptoe around an issue that could wake up sleeping voters and polarize them. It’s easier to blow smoke around the economy, roll up to the middle, and exhale some hazy verbiage if anyone asks a question about how a Liberal, PC, or NDP government would manage the weed business.
But like death and taxes, the de-criminalization of marijuana is certain: Justin Trudeau’s Liberals introduced the enabling federal legislation on April 20 (or “4/20,” as the date is affectionately known to weed advocates who rallied annually on that date). The new law will allow adult Canadians to grow four plants or to possess 30 grams of marijuana (acquired somewhere from someone — nobody’s saying) for their own use in a traditional reefer or as a culinary ingredient — the latter usage almost guaranteeing a publishing boom in cookbooks.
Of course, the big challenge for governments is how to keep weed out of the hands of teenagers (or even pre-teens) whose brains are not fully developed. But when it comes to The Demon Weed, “the devil is in the details”: the Prime Minister cannily left many of the most controversial aspects of legalization — such as who can grow, buy, and use pot — for provincial governments to decide upon and enforce.
The federal legislation, as it was introduced, makes it an offence punishable by 14 years in jail to sell cannabis to a person under the age of 18. There are also new penalties for drivers impaired by marijuana. Each province has the authority to set the age at which a person can legally buy and consume marijuana. All three campaigning leaders say that will require a “broader consultation with Nova Scotians” before making a decision, but none agree with 18.
“I’m very worried that the federal age of 18 is too low,” said PC leader Jamie Baillie. “All of the evidence shows that hard drugs and soft drugs like marijuana are dangerous for teenaged minds and continue to be until a much later age. I don’t want to send message to young Nova Scotians that smoking marijuana is perfectly fine, when in fact there are serious health risks.”
Asked by the Halifax Examiner what legal age he could support, the PC leader refused to go there. Baillie says his government would immediately turn to scientists for that advice before settling on a legal age.
“This is a big decision and we want as broad a consultation as possible,” said NDP leader Gary Burrill. “But as a general parameter, it doesn’t make any sense that we should legalize marijuana use at a lower age than our legal drinking age, so it shouldn’t be below 19.”
“I’m still hoping for a uniform age across the region,” said Liberal leader Stephen McNeil. “The last time the Atlantic Premiers were together, we talked about it but we haven’t yet landed on a uniform age. For me, personally, when it becomes a legal product, 19 seems like the logical age — the same as we do with alcohol.”
Where would it be sold?
“We think it’s very important that the distribution network should not be done through the private sector but through the public sector,” said the NDP’s Gary Burrill. “The solution that suggests itself to us is the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation. Many of the areas of expertise needed to implement this well are areas that the NSLC now has: marketing, harm-reduction, and ID-ing customers. It could be sold under one roof or two roofs. Having a public sector distribution system doesn’t necessarily mean you would have to sell marijuana products on the same shelf with alcohol, depending on the results of the consultation.”
In New Brunswick, NB Liquor has offered the use of its network of stores to also sell weed. The provincial government under Brian Gallant has set up a working group involving five departments to begin studying what regulations could look like.
“We need to have a controlled access point,” declares PC leader Jamie Baillie, but whether that’s public or private, he didn’t say.
Liberal leader Stephen McNeil is again pinning his hopes on regional co-operation among Atlantic premiers that could result in a regulatory system with a consistent form of distribution and a consistent pricing regime.
On that detail politicians have a wide array of choices. Will a joint be taxed like a cigarette: 23.5 cents provincial tax on every bomber? Or like a beer in a restaurant: 15 per cent HST, with the Province getting 10 per cent ? Or how about gasoline at the pumps, which loads up a combination of federal excise tax, HST, and a special provincial “fuel” tax of 15.5 cents per litre. And how does one convert a kilo into litres, anyway?
On this fascinating and potentially lucrative policy choice, none of the three party leaders is revealing more than a whiff.
“We have no proposal on that,” says Burrill frankly. “It requires an organized consultation immediately after the election, like about two dozen decisions around legalization.” (The province is also responsible for enforcement, and must decide whether bylaw officers or police will be tasked with handing out tickets to citizens found “over the limit” — in terms of possessing more than 30 grams or four plants, the same amounts permitted for medical marijuana users. Provinces can also adjust that number.)
“You can almost be certain it will be taxed,” said McNeil, “but in what form we don’t know. This is one of those things we should be looking at from an Atlantic point-of-view. We shouldn’t be different. Also, I don’t believe this is going to be the huge cash cow everyone believes it is going to be. The price of it needs to be a reasonable price.”
For Nova Scotia, the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council estimates annual provincial government revenues from cannabis sales could be between $89 and $100 million, including HST. That’s a lot less than from alcohol. A report from accounting firm Deloitte last fall predicted marijuana sales could be worth $22.6 billion a year to the Canadian economy
“Its important that marijuana is taxed because socially we are trying to make sure it is not a free-flowing drug that all young people can have, and taxing is one way to make sure that doesn’t happen,” noted PC leader Jamie Baillie. “Of course, that has to be balanced with the risk of creating a second black market if it is priced too high, which sometimes has happened with cigarettes.”
Interestingly, both the Liberals and NDP have some high-profile members well-versed in the retail side of weed. The president of the provincial Liberal party, Dr. John Gillis, is also a director of National Access Cannabis, a company with a chain of 10 stores in several provinces. Former NDP Premier Darrell Dexter is the vice-chair of Global Public Relations, a consulting firm currently lobbying governments on behalf of clients who are cannabis producers.
As for whether the province will be ready with rules if legal pot arrives on July 1 next year, Stephen McNeil says it must and will be. Gary Burrill says in the meantime, he would support a federal NDP initiative that would stop fining people who fire up while the old law is still on the books.
Cynics often refer to political campaigns as a Gong Show. But when Nova Scotians settle into their couches for the leaders’ TV debate later this month — Thursday, May 18, at 6pm on CBC TV — it could turn into a Bong Show.