What will marijuana legalization look like in Quebec? Uncertainty abounds

By Canada Day next year, marijuana is expected to be legal across the country. How and where it will be available for purchase in Quebec is far from clear. We take a look at the options.

Activist calls provincial government's silence on legalization 'alarming'

Provinces will have the right to decide how the marijuana is distributed and sold, including setting the age limit, but it's still unclear how Quebec will regulate the drug. (CBC)

By Canada Day next year, marijuana is expected to be legal across the country, but how and where it will be available for purchase in Quebec is far from clear. 

Under legislation expected to be announced by Justin Trudeau's Liberal government early next month, Ottawa will be in charge of making sure the country's marijuana supply is safe. It will also license producers.

The provinces, however, will have the right to decide how the marijuana is distributed and sold. They will also have the right to set price.

Up until now, though, Quebec has stayed quiet about its plans.

Premier Philippe Couillard said while he is not opposed to the principle of legalization, he wants to see the details of the bill before commenting on how the province will tackle the issue.

Couillard told reporters in Jonquière, Que., Monday that he has no details about what will be in the bill, and there are aspects of it that must be clarified.

"We should also be careful not to add too many responsibilities on the shoulders of provinces, for example, regulation, implementation, how we're going to test people for this. So we want to make sure everyone plays their part in the implementation," he said.

Health Minister Gaétan Barrette said Monday that when the new regulations are "imposed" on the provinces and territories, "there will be consequences, and we will do as always.… We take the responsibilities [into] our hands, and we do the best we can."

"That is what will happen," he said.

In February 2016, Quebec Finance Minister Carlos Leitao said the province wanted nothing to do with selling marijuana, saying it would be up to the federal government to determine how commercialize the drug.

He later said legalization is "complex" and will require discussions between the provinces and the federal government.

Marc-Boris St-Maurice, a longtime legalization activist and director of Montreal Compassion Centre, called the silence from the Quebec government "alarming." 

The shared responsibility between the provinces and Ottawa could delay implementation and create situations where there are different systems in place across the country, St-Maurice said.

How old is old enough?

One area where there may be discrepancies is when it comes to age.

While Ottawa will set a minimum age of 18 to buy marijuana, the provinces will have the option of setting a higher age limit.

Some believe 18 is too young, but University of Ottawa criminology professor Line Beauchesne said increasing the legal age won't help the government achieve its objective.

"One of the main goals of the law is to make the black market supply and all the criminal activity surrounding it disappear. The majority of people consume before [the age of 25] so we won't succeed in getting rid of the black market," she told Radio-Canada's Gravel le matin.

St-Maurice agreed, saying restricting sales to a higher age will do nothing to stop people from using it and likely push people to the black market.

Where to sell it?

The idea of selling pot at provincial liquor commissions has been floated numerous times.

The SAQ employee's union even paid, in part, for a study that extolled the benefits of state-run stores selling marijuana.

But late last year, the task force appointed by the Canadian government to study the legalization of marijuana recommended a ban of co-locating cannabis with alcohol and tobacco products, a viewpoint some stakeholders agree with.

Adam Greenblatt, another Montreal legalization advocate, said the SAQ isn't the best place to sell cannabis.

"We have concerns about having cannabis sold alongside alcohol. That doesn't preclude having the [provincial liquor commission] regulate cannabis. But we have concerns about seeing cannabis sold in a liquor store."

St-Maurice said cannabis should be sold at private businesses tailored specifically to the drug.

Marc-Boris St-Maurice says the Quebec government hasn't given any indication about its plans regarding the legalization of marijuana. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Restriction, revenue concerns

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said legalization must come with education and the proper tools to protect the population from those who drive under the influence.

"I do want to legalize it. As long as it's not just a menu à la carte but it covers all the angles, I don't have a problem with that," he said.

In Colorado, tax revenue from the sale of marijuana goes toward a variety of programs, including school construction, substance abuse prevention and law enforcement.

But Beauchesne said in Canada, the federal government can't tell the provinces how to use the revenue. She is worried the money will go into the general government coffers instead of for programs similar to Colorado's.

In Colorado, tax revenue from the sale of marijuana goes toward a variety of government programs, something one criminologist would like to see happen in Quebec. (Solomon Israel/CBC)

St-Maurice said he fears the government will put tight restrictions on its program and that it won't respond to existing pot users' needs.

He said he is concerned that people who don't participate in the government program will be criminalized.

"If we're criminalizing people because they don't like the government's program, the government can't say it has successfully legalized marijuana," he said.

With files from Arian Zarrinkoub and Benjamin Shingler