Government still can't say when legal pot goes on sale in Canada

There has been fierce debate over how marijuana legalization should work, but Canadians still don't know precisely when it will actually begin.

MP Bill Blair, the Liberal point man on pot, says 'the price of delay is unacceptable'

Marijuana dispensaries like this one in Toronto are regularly being raided by police, but it's still not clear exactly what day the new legal recreational marijuana regime will actually take effect. (Rebecca Silverstone/CBC)

The federal government's decision to legalize recreational pot by July 2018 made headlines around the world. Back at home, it has provinces and municipalities racing to sort out questions about where it will be sold, smoked and even stored.

But one thing no one seems to know is precisely when legalized marijuana will go on sale in Canada.

"I think when we say we want to begin in July 2018, that's as particular as I get," said Bill Blair, the Liberal point man on the pot file. 

"I think ideally we'd be ready before the beginning of July, but again, there's a lot of things to be taken into account."

So June, then? 

Blair hesitates to make that confirmation.

"Let us say in the month of July."

In fact, the decision isn't up to Blair, the parliamentary secretary to both the ministers of justice and health. He jokes that it's "a little bit above my pay grade to determine a precise date of implementation."

Who decides?

Determining just when Canadians can light up their joints legally will be up to cabinet.

Even after the House of Commons and the Senate pass the legalization legislation, the new law won't take effect immediately. There's a provision in the bill that requires an additional order from cabinet to set the date.

And there are a lot of factors that could influence that date, according to Blair.

Let's start with the Senate. It's expected to get the legalization bill before Christmas, but already some senators are warning that they may not be done debating, studying and amending it in time for the July 2018 target.

Some senators have mused that the marijuana legislation may not be passed as soon as the summer. Liberal MP Bill Blair, who is a key player in the pot legalization process, says they upper chamber should recognize the 'urgency' of the situation. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"There are 95 senators and as many opinions" on legalization, said Conservative Sen. Ghislain Maltais.

And it's not only the legalization bill itself. A second bill on impaired driving is also an important part of the Liberals' legalization plan.

Blair has said that while the federal government respects the work the senate has to do, it should be done with "urgency" and that "the price of delay is unacceptable."

Still, the Senate remains a bit of a wild card.

There's also the process of getting all the necessary regulations in place for legalization. That includes deciding on the maximum amount of THC allowed in cannabis products, selecting the type of roadside saliva tests that can be used to help determine if a driver is impaired and setting the legal limits for what constitutes drugged driving.

Many governments involved

And it's not just the federal government. The provinces and territories have to pass laws and set regulations of their own.

Ontario, New Brunswick, Manitoba and Alberta have all announced their pot plans, each with a different mix of public and private sector involvement. However there are still a lot of provinces that are in the consulting and strategizing phase. Even those who have laid out proposed laws still have to get those laws passed.

The federal government indicated months ago that it wouldn't let any individual province stop the legalization process.

It said if a province wasn't ready with its system for legalized sales by the government's deadline, people in that province would simply be allowed to legally buy recreational pot online directly from a federally licensed producer.

But that doesn't mean they'll disregard the time frame issues in the provinces entirely.

"The readiness of the provinces is important," said Blair.

"It isn't easy. This is not a simple matter. It's a pretty significant shift. Yet everyone has been working hard on it."

Not Canada Day

There is one day that will not be the start of legalization — Canada Day.

Blair has been clear that he does not think July 1 is an appropriate choice.

"It's not just optics. I think there's substance there, even beyond optics. I think that's a very special day that should not in any way be detracted from."

About the Author

Catherine Cullen

Parliamentary Bureau

Catherine Cullen is a senior reporter covering politics and Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

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