Opinion

Can you trust a government pot dealer?: Neil Macdonald

Will customers have to identify themselves? Will their purchases be recorded? Perhaps, says Bill Blair, but that data would be protected by privacy laws, and never divulged. A matter of trust.

Bill Blair, the point man on Canada's pot file, says purchase information might be collected, but not divulged

Regardless of political intent, the machinery of government and enforcement can be a dull-witted hive, entirely capable of ugly, unintended consequences. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

How much do you trust your government?

It's the eternal American question, but one Canadians should be asking themselves, too.

Because in a few months, we will presumably all wake up free — for the first time in any of our lives — to legally possess recreational cannabis.

And with that new freedom will come a new relationship with government. Government, which has for generations policed and prosecuted cannabis use, now wants to become our dealer, too, with tools to learn and record every detail of our consumption habits.

Legalization is only sensible. It was good to hear former Toronto police chief Bill Blair, now a Liberal MP and Justin Trudeau's point man on the file, tell me flatly that there is no evidence cannabis is a "gateway drug," the canard authorities have used for so long to justify ruining so many people's lives.

Blair concedes that travel into the States is a sensitive issue, saying only that "there have been discussions taking place across the border" about the issue. He believes the Americans will listen to reason. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Criminalizing cannabis was and is stupid, destructive, wasteful, racist in practice, and profoundly hypocritical, given the number of authority figures, up to and including the prime minister, who admit having used it themselves. (Blair hasn't).

This summer, with legalization, the government intends to rectify that.

But what happens then?

Because regardless of political intent, the machinery of government and enforcement can be a dull-witted hive, entirely capable of ugly, unintended consequences.

Take, for example, the matter of the Americans.

Despite the fact that several states have long since legalized cannabis, it remains outlawed at the federal level. Perverse, but true.

Proven or admitted consumption of cannabis is grounds to exclude any non-citizen from the United States for life. Canadians have been barred for acknowledging to U.S. border agents that they smoke medical marijuana, and Canadian authorities have for many years provided American agencies with names of unfortunates arrested and convicted here of trifling pot offences, thereby colluding in a far greater punishment than any dispensed by the courts.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection service flatly refuses to answer questions about how Canadians will be treated once cannabis is legal here. Consider this, though: cracking down at the border is a signature issue for President Donald Trump, who is now actually talking about executing drug dealers.

Blair concedes that travel into the U.S. is a sensitive issue, saying only that "there have been discussions taking place across the border" about the issue. He believes the Americans will listen to reason.

In other words, we must trust that Canadian law enforcement and bureaucrats will have the bottle to push back if Trump's border agents get nasty.

I'm not so sure.

The Americans are not the only issue, though. Once Canada legalizes marijuana, government will probably be your dealer.

The Canadian idea is to have most of us buying cannabis from the state, at state-set prices. Ontario and Quebec, which represent a majority of the population, have already announced government cannabis monopolies.

Money from marijuana legalization is something many provinces haven't had to budget for before, but with the extra cash from cannabis also comes some extra costs. CBC News takes a look at how different provinces are rolling out their fiscal plans, and their expectations of pot revenue and how they plan to spend it. 2:45

Exactly how the government outlets will operate is still being sorted out, but it's a safe bet that the dazzling array of strains and choices available to consumers in certain American states won't be permitted. There won't likely be the pot equivalent of wine sommeliers, either. The government clerks will be there to sternly enforce and regulate, not to encourage.

Will customers have to identify themselves? Will their purchases be recorded? Perhaps, says Blair, but that data would be protected by privacy laws, and never divulged.

Again, a matter of trust.

Then there's the continuing use of prosecutions, because this will be a highly qualified legalization.

Only government pot, for example, will be legal; should you wish to avoid government-dictated quality and price-fixing, and decide to continue buying this newly legalized product from your local dealer, you will be committing an offence. Possessing privately purchased dope will be illegal, too, although it will be a "ticketable" offence, rather than a crime, at least where amounts are relatively small.

Blair promises that those ticketed for pot offences will not have their names placed in police databases shared with the Americans.

A noble notion. And effectively, a request for more trust.

Driving under the influence

Those who are caught driving under the influence of pot are another matter.

Because science has not determined how much tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is safe (as opposed to, say, medicinally salubrious), or even what level of THC constitutes impairment, the government is offering no guidance on consumption – no equivalent of one drink per hour.

How long should someone wait after smoking to get behind the wheel?

"Sleep it off," advises a federal government website. Again, no precision.

But, out of an abundance of caution, the government is setting a severely low legal level for THC in drivers' bloodstreams – much lower than the level in states that have legalized.

A level of more than two nanograms of active THC per millilitre of blood, but less than five nanograms, will be a non-indictable "summary" offence, carrying a fine of up to $1,000. Over five nanograms means impaired driving, a serious crime, even though science says it's entirely possible to be unimpaired at even above that level. A public safety official in Colorado, where the pot market is wide open, told me that people accused of driving above five nanograms sometimes successfully contend in court that they were not impaired. Canada's new rules appear to be absolute.

And will the names of those charged in Canada be shared with U.S. authorities? Not for offences under five nanograms, says Blair. At least, not as a general rule.

In any case, we'll have to trust that they won't.

And what about financial records of pot transactions? Most Canadian banks answer to at least two regulatory masters, Ottawa and Washington, and regularly hand over information on customers in order to keep making profits. Does anyone really want to trust a bank?

We are a trusting bunch, though, we Canadians, particularly when it comes to government.

Government is our parent, our protector, our insurer, our doctor, our police officer, our educator, our friend.

And, soon, our pot dealer. What could go wrong?

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.