Legal cannabis is here, it's time to answer some burning questions

Canadians put some big questions about legalized cannabis to the experts, including Minister of border security and organized crime reduction Bill Blair, president of the Canadian Medical Association Dr. Gigi Osler, and Kirk Tousaw, lawyer and consultant for Canopy Growth Corp.

Canadians are still unclear about how parts of this whole legalization thing will work

The National co-host Andrew Chang, left, and members of the town hall studio audience pose questions about cannabis legalization to Bill Blair, Minister of border security and organized crime reduction and the government’s lead on the cannabis file, centre, president of the Canadian Medical Association Dr. Gigi Osler, and Kirk Tousaw, lawyer and consultant for Canopy Growth Corp. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

There's been a lot of talk about cannabis leading up to Wednesday's legalization, but with so much on the line it still feels in some ways as though the really important conversation is just getting started.

Canadians across the country have many questions about how things will work, ranging from how workers' rights will be protected, to what kind of resources are in place to address marijuana addiction and prevent impaired driving.

The National co-host Andrew Chang and members of the public put some of those questions to the experts in a CBC town hall:

  • Bill Blair, Minister of border security and organized crime reduction, and the government's lead on the cannabis file
  • Dr. Gigi Osler, president of the Canadian Medical Association
  • Kirk Tousaw, lawyer and consultant for Canopy Growth Corp.

Some of the questions may be very similar to yours, some may cover issues you haven't thought of — and some of the answers, as well as the lack of clarity on specific issues, may surprise you.

Here are excerpts from the town hall:


Workers' rights

Ellaine Farrell. (Pelin Sedik/CBC)

Elaine Farrell of Toronto is a long-time employee of the Toronto Transit Commission, and has been fighting for the right to use cannabis CBD oil instead of prescription opioids for chronic pain in her legs and back.

Farrell asks:"How will the worker's rights be balanced, and my rights to be able to use cannabis either for medicinal or recreational purposes?"

Minister Bill Blair says that while we've had experience with medical cannabis for nearly two decades in Canada, new workplace rules will likely be developed once recreational cannabis is legal:

Minister Bill Blair responds to a question about rules for cannabis impairment in the workplace. 0:41

Lawyer Kirk Tousaw adds that he has concerns about employers who may rely on drug testing to determine impairment. Signs of cannabis use can stay in people's bodies for a long period of time, so it's difficult to say when and how much they've been using.

"When you're testing people for the presence of these metabolites, you're not really getting a clear picture."

Dr. Gigi Osler adds: "I think the research is very varied, and hence you see jurisdictions across the country having these widely variable rules as to when someone can use and then report for work."

More research, she says, will help "shed a light" on impairment and "help reduce some of the discomforts that employers may be feeling."

Driving high

Michael Stewart. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Michael Stewart of Toronto has been involved for more than a decade with groups working to prevent impaired driving. He says one of the challenges he continues to see is young and novice drivers who feel that being impaired by cannabis is perfectly fine and doesn't negatively affect their driving ability.

Stewart asks:"How can we convince these young novice drivers that driving while impaired by cannabis can be dangerous?"

Dr. Osler cautions that there are certain risks associated with cannabis and driving, especially when combined with alcohol:

Dr. Gigi Osler talks about the problems of combining cannabis and alcohol, and then trying to determine if you're OK to drive. 0:42

Bill Blair says that the government has earmarked a significant amount of money for public education, because there is a lot of misinformation out there.

"Young people aren't aware of the risks of this, and it's important that they know that cannabis can significantly impair their ability to operate a motor vehicle."

He points out that driving is a privilege in this country, and it's predicated on two principles — you have to be licensed and you have to be sober.

But currently, law enforcement does not have widespread access to technology that will enable them to detect when people are driving high, and therefore deter people from using cannabis when operating a motor vehicle.

Lawyer Kirk Tousaw says that while public awareness and education are key, over-reliance on enforcement pushes us towards unreliable testing methods and — in his opinion — the arbitrary rules around impairment that are currently in place.

He adds, "if this is one of your first times using cannabis and you're using a high-potency cannabis, be smart, be responsible. I think we trust Canadians in a whole variety of ways to be responsible for their own individual behaviours."

Addiction and mental health

Josie, a self-described cannabis addict, asks The National Conversation on Cannabis whether the government plans to back research into the long-term impact of the drug on young people. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Josie is a Toronto resident who struggled with mental health issues through most of her teen years. She says she started smoking cannabis at 14 years-old and by 15, she was "a full-blown pothead," experiencing intense paranoia and hallucinations. She received treatment, but says she still struggles with cannabis addiction.

Josie asks: "What do we have in place to address marijuana addiction after legalization, especially for youth? There's not a lot of research to show what the long-term impact of regular cannabis use is, especially among young brains, and I was wondering what the government has planned to address this issue?"

Minister Blair says, "Our government has said the revenue that is generated from the excise tax of cannabis needs to be reinvested in research prevention treatment and rehabilitation."

Minister Bill Blair talks about measures to deal with mental health issues connected to cannabis use. 0:53

Dr. Osler says she is "heartened" to hear that Minister Blair is intent on putting more resources into counselling and addiction services. "I think it's vitally important to have that in place as a promise to Canadians."

She adds that she doesn't want to "demonize" cannabis, but says Canadians need to be aware of information that's available, "so people can make the right choices."

Cannabis and kids

Signe Knutson. (Richard Grundy/CBC)

Signe Knutson of Vancouver is an artist and a mom, as well as a medicinal and recreational cannabis user.

Knutson asks: "Once cannabis is legalized, what are the parental liabilities if a teenager accesses it at home, whether for medicinal or recreational use? Also, wouldn't it be safer, if kids are going to use it anyway, for a teen to access it at home from a parent instead of illegally somewhere else?"

Kirk Tousaw says that due to differences in cannabis laws between the provinces, it's hard to get a "complete picture of potential legal liability" with regard to the drug.

But he points out that when it comes to alcohol, "we don't criminalize parents" or require them to lock their alcohol cabinets.

Lawyer Kirk Tousaw addresses the legal issues of kids accessing cannabis at home. 0:51

Dr. Osler adds that the legalization of recreational cannabis is "an opportunity for parents to start having conversations with their children" about how to use the drug "safely and wisely."

She also suggests that parents treat cannabis like a prescription medication.

"Keep it out of the reach of young children, in particular," she says. "They won't know how much to ingest, and whatever amount they ingest may be just simply too much for their smaller bodies."

Innovation vs. regulation

Ronan Levy. (John Lesavage/CBC)

Ronan Levy is a lawyer and investor in Toronto who works with the cannabis industry. He has questions about balancing innovation and regulation.

Levy asks: "There's an incredible amount of innovation going on in the cannabis industry in Canada right now, and I think most observers would agree that innovation is going to be essential to help the government achieve its policy objectives of protecting the health of Canadians and Canadian youth, as well as eliminating the black market. However, regulators tend to be slow to react to innovation and technological change. What is the government going to do to foster innovation in the industry to ensure that the policy objectives are reached?"

Minister Blair says the government has been "working pretty diligently for the last two and a half years" to develop regulatory frameworks and around licensing producers, as well as marketing:

Minister Bill Blair address questions about marketing and promoting cannabis. 0:55

He adds that the government continues to work on the regulation around edibles, preparing for their future legalization.

"There were some significant additional risks in the edible market that needed to be properly regulated. And we based that determination on the experience in other jurisdictions that urged us to approach this with caution, but to enter into a very careful examination to make sure that it can be done safely."

Tousaw adds that innovation in the cannabis market is happening rapidly.

"There's a tremendous amount of entrepreneurial spirit. There's a tremendous amount of smart people working very hard to bring new products to markets that are going to provide Canadians with a safer alternative for their recreational consumption than alcohol."

For those reasons, he says, it's important that Canada "very quickly get the preferred formats for people out in the marketplace."

Border issues

Sam Znaimer. (Dillon Hodgin/CBC)

Sam Znaimer of Vancouver, an investment professional, received a lifetime ban preventing him from entering the United States due to some investments in U.S. cannabis companies.

Znaimer asks: "What I want to know is what happens to Canadians traveling to the U.S. after cannabis legalization?"

Blair says that it will be a serious criminal offence to carry any amount of cannabis into the United States or any other country, and conversely, to bring it from any other country into Canada.

"Canadians need to understand the law. They need understand the rights, but also the risks that would pose. We will have signs put up, we're putting information to every Canadian household so that they know the law and don't inadvertently put themselves at risk."

He adds that the U.S. will not change how it manages security at the border.

"If you indicate to the border agents that you are either carrying cannabis or going down into the United States to engage in a business that is illegal in their country, then it's very likely that they will exclude you from entering the country."

Lawyer Kirk Tousaw has some advice for Canadians about what they should do when they are dealing with a U.S. border agent, to avoid being denied entry to the U.S.:

Lawyer Kirk Tousaw addresses some of the issues for users of cannabis or people who invest in the industry if they travel to the United States. 0:42

Policing and courts

Malik Scott. (Pelin Sedik/CBC)

Malik Scott of Markham, Ont., was detained twice by police last year on suspicion of marijuana possession. He was released both times when nothing was found, and believes that he was a victim of racial profiling.  

Scott asks: "With this future legalization coming up, I'm wondering how exactly will it affect racial profiling and policing? Also, the people who've been convicted and even incarcerated for cannabis use — will they receive any amnesty when it is legalized?"

Minister Blair says that while he is aware racial profiling does exist, it is "abhorrent, unacceptable and unlawful, and any individual or any police officer engaging in racial profiling is breaking the law."

Minister Bill Blair talks about what will happen to people convicted of past cannabis-related offences after pot is legalized. 0:51

Tousaw says he believes the Crown prosecutor's office has a duty to "look forward" in legal jurisdictions where cannabis has been legalized.

"Unfortunately, the criminal justice system is a system that is class- and racially-enforced disproportionately, and we need to work hard on fixing those problems. I don't think they're going to go away overnight."

- With files from Nicole Brewster-Mercury, Ghazala Malik, Sarah Bridge, Lara Chatterjee

  • WATCH: A special one-hour presentation of The National Conversation will air Tuesday Oct. 16 at 8 p.m. ET on CBC News Network and streamed online

The National's story about The National Conversation on cannabis:

The National's Andrew Chang and members of the public put questions about cannabis legalization to the experts in a CBC town hall. 19:33