The Liberal government has no set time frame for legalizing marijuana, and current laws must be enforced, the federal point man on changes to Canada's pot legislation said Wednesday.
Bill Blair, parliamentary secretary to the justice minister and Toronto's former police chief, told a group of Senate Liberals during a public policy forum that there will be no moratorium on charges or prosecution for possessing marijuana.
Blair is leading the task force that will consult widely with various people to craft new laws around marijuana, and he warned Canadians they could still face criminal charges for smoking weed.
"Until Parliament has enacted legislation, and new rules are in place to ensure that marijuana is carefully regulated, the current laws remain in force and should be obeyed," he said.
Possession charges 'shocking'
Explaining the government's rationale for moving to legalize, Blair said the goal is to strictly regulate the drug and restrict its access to minors. It will also take billions of dollars in black market sales from organized crime groups, he said.
Blair called the number of Canadians charged with possession "shocking," noting that in 2014 there were 22,000 charges laid. Current laws disproportionately affect minority and aboriginal communities, he added.
But he insisted the government will take proper time to consult and proceed with caution — and he wouldn't even commit to passing legislation before the next federal election.
"What we're hearing from Canadians is that they want it done expeditiously, but they want it done right," he said, adding he could not speculate on how long that might take.
Public health concerns
Blair said there are also public health concerns to consider, especially for those with mental health issues or those addicted to marijuana.
"The government believes that the time has come to enact a system of strict regulations to replace the criminal sanctions," he said.
"That is the best hope we have for protecting our children, making our communities safer and facilitating the lawful, safe use of this drug, which is not a benign drug. It has some risks for some users."
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair urged the government to immediately decriminalize pot so no Canadians are slapped with charges before new laws are enacted.
"I think that we owe it to ourselves to be clear on this, to make sure nobody ever again in Canada gets a criminal record for simple possession of marijuana for personal use," he said.
Moratorium on arrests
Cannabis activist Jodie Emery called it "upsetting" that Canadians will still be criminalized until new laws are enacted.
"We need a moratorium on arrests and we need amnesty for two million Canadians since 1965 who have had criminal records," she told CBC News Network's Power & Politics.
Emery said continued arrests and prosecution are a waste of money that could be better spent on critical services like health care.
But Clive Weighill, president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, welcomed the government's plan to uphold current laws in place as a way to ensure a "standard" enforcement across the country. But he urged the government to clear up some confusion by outlining the process in broad strokes.
"Right now it's just a big fog," he said. "We know it's going to be legalized, but we don't know how it's going to happen, who's going to be consulted. If they could just come out with a real bare bones action plan, just so the Canadian public can say OK, these are the steps we're going through."
Responding to some of the criticism on Power & Politics, Blair defended enforcement of the current law.
"Until that regulatory framework is in place, the only tool that we have available to us to control the access of young people who shouldn't have access to this drug is through the criminal sanction," he told host Rosemary Barton.
Asked if pot could be sold at pharmacies or liquor stores, Blair said the government will study various distribution models.
Meantime, a Federal Court judge today struck down federal regulations restricting the rights of medical marijuana patients to grow their own cannabis, and gave the Liberal government six months to come up with new rules.