A task force appointed by the Canadian government to study the legalization of marijuana determined Tuesday that sales should be restricted to those 18 and older, with a personal possession limit of 30 grams.
The Canadian Medical Association had recommended setting the age at 21, with strict limits on quantity and potency until 25. But the task force said higher age limits would simply drive young consumers into the hands of the black market, something the government hopes to actively discourage with its push to legalize pot.
Provinces and territories should, however, be provided with the flexibility to set their own age restrictions on purchasing the drug, the report said. The nine U.S. jurisdictions that have legalized marijuana sales have matched the age limit to the drinking age of 21.
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"Now is the time to move away from a system that has, for decades, been focused on the prohibition of cannabis into a regulated legal market," said Anne McLellan, a former Liberal cabinet minister and chair of the task force.
"I think we're all aware of the challenges and societal problems that the existing system has created," she said, pointing to the flourishing illicit market for the drug.
The government has promised to table legislation in spring 2017, but it could take much more time for the bill to be studied and eventually passed into law.
The task force said Tuesday that timing for legalization is the government's prerogative. "Timelines from this point on are up to the government of Canada."
Choke off organized crime
The report recommends Ottawa impose many of the same restrictions that currently apply to alcohol and tobacco sales to cannabis — namely limits on advertising — to discourage use by young people.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said key objectives of the legislation are to keep marijuana out of the hands of children and to choke off profits to organized crime.
While it says cannabis consumption for personal purposes should be legalized, the task force recommends criminal penalties for illicit production and for those trafficking the drug to youth and international markets. McLellan also said that during this "period of transition," existing laws that prohibit possession should be enforced until legislation is in place.
Cannabis should be sold in storefront locations, the report said, but it recommends a ban of co-locating cannabis with alcohol and tobacco products, a blow to some provinces, like Ontario, which had hoped to sell marijuana in government-owned liquor stores. It also said cannabis products should be sold in plain packaging, as the Liberal government has promised to do with tobacco.
The report also suggests limits on the density of cannabis storefront operations and regulations to keep them away from schools, community centres and public parks.
The task force did not recommend a set price for cannabis, but suggested higher taxes on cannabis with elevated levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical responsible for most of marijuana's psychological effects, to discourage use.
Tax revenues generated from the sale of cannabis should be directed toward public education campaigns and further research on the health risks associated with consumption, the report recommended. It also said the government should help develop a body of research on the effects of cannabis-impaired driving.
McLellan said there is a dearth of scientific research on what the legal limits should be on consuming cannabis and operating a vehicle.
"This isn't going to be a new challenge created by legalization," McLellan said. "Drug-impaired charges are being laid every day in courts across this country."
The Ontario Provincial Police and the RCMP are testing three roadside oral fluid testing devices to determine THC levels, the former minister said.
The task force suggested the current medical marijuana regime, set up after successive court challenges, be maintained for the time being.
In fact, it said the professional production techniques developed under the current system should be applied to the cultivation of cannabis for personal consumption, a potential boon for some producers who have been looking to cash in on a liberalized marijuana market.
However, McLellan said, the task force does not want to see production concentrated in the hands of only large producers.
"We heard from a great many parties that they wanted a diversity of producers, and we agree with that," she said, adding she hopes some black market producers will choose to bring their operations under the new legal regime.
Personal cultivation should also be maintained, the report recommended, but with a limit on four plants per home, and a height restriction of 100 centimetres to reduce fire risks.
Edible pot products will also be legalized but they must not be "appealing to children" and cannot mimic familiar food items or be packaged to look like candy.
The task force's recommendations are not binding on the government.
Nine members of the task force held roundtables with experts across the country, visited two U.S. states where pot is already legal and heard from about 28,000 Canadians through online consultations.
The NDP has called for an immediate decriminalization of marijuana until a new law is passed. During Tuesday's question period, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair asked why, if the goal of the pot legislation is to protect minors, police are still laying charges against them.
"Can the prime minister tell us how handing out criminal convictions and criminal records to young Canadians is somehow supposed to protect them?" he asked.
Trudeau insisted new legislation will curb the current "easy access" for young people, while removing lucrative profits for street gangs and organized crime. But he insisted Canadians must follow the existing law until it officially changes.
"Those are our priorities. That's what we're focused on. And until we change the laws, the laws stand," he said.
Age limit concern
Conservative health critic Colin Carrie called the task force's recommendation to set the age limit at 18 "particularly troubling," since medical experts have warned about the impact of marijuana on brain development.
"They have to decide if they want to take the word of scientist, or take the word of a former Liberal cabinet minister who says the age should be 18."