Toronto health board wants 'immediate' clarity on pot rules

The Toronto Board of Health is calling on the federal government to provide "immediate" clarity on pot rules, following police raids on dozens of marijuana dispensaries across the city last week.

Liberal MP Adam Vaughan says that 'the law's the law'

Joe Cressy, Toronto city councillor for Ward 20 and chair of Toronto Drug Strategy Implementation Panel, says issues the government must consider in legalizing marijuana include access, distribution, age appropriateness, marketing, pricing and medicinal versus recreational uses. (CBC)

The Toronto Board of Health is calling on the federal government to provide "immediate" clarity on pot rules, following police raids on dozens of marijuana dispensaries across the city last week.

A motion passed by the board calls for a regulatory framework with a public health approach, ahead of the forthcoming federal legalization and regulation in 2017.

The Liberal government has said it will introduce new legislation next year, but the city's health board says that's not good enough — there is a need for interim rules now.

Coun. Joe Cressy, who sits on the health board, said the city has been struggling with a "legislative limbo."

"We've been told that criminalization doesn't work, so tomorrow we're going to solve it, but today you're going to have to continue to enforce it," said Cressy, who is the councillor for Ward 20 and chair of the Toronto Drug Strategy Implementation Panel. "That doesn't work."

Not everyone agrees that the health board's motion is needed.

Adam Vaughan, the Liberal member of Parliament for Fort York-Spadina and a former Toronto councillor, said there is no need for extra, interim, rules, tweeting that "the law's the law."

"Cities have the regulatory tools they need, police have the same laws they've always had. Not doing anything was T.O.'s choice," he wrote. Vaughan is also the federal secretary to the prime minister for intergovernmental affairs, informally known as the "unity minister."

Cressy made his comments at a board of health meeting, where a report on the public health approach to the regulation of recreational marijuana was being considered. The report, which includes a series of recommendations, outlines how recreational pot could be regulated federally.

The health board, in addition to calling for clarity, also called for the report to be forwarded to provincial and federal transportation ministries, owing to the risks of driving and marijuana use.

The board also passed two motions:

  • That the medical officer of health be requested to begin an educational campaign on the risks and benefits of the use of non-medical cannabis.

  • That the board of health urge the federal minister of health to earmark some of the savings and tax revenue generated from the legalization of cannabis toward low-income communities, particularly those affected by the unintended consequences of legalization.

​One of the speakers at the hearing brought up a concern that legalization will take away a source of income for some people. The motion seeks to ease that burden of lost income, acknowledging that although it comes from illegal activity, it could create hardships for some people.

'Cities are struggling'

"The federal government has let down cities right across this country," Cressy said on CBC's Metro Morning today. "Cities are struggling. You cannot arrest your way to a solution."

Toronto police raided 43 marijuana dispensaries on Thursday. Police said the dispensaries were operating illegally.

Officers arrested 90 people, laid 186 charges of possession for the purpose of trafficking and 71 charges of proceeds of crime. About 270 kilograms of dried marijuana, among other products, were seized.

Cressy said a new federal regulatory framework should consider such issues as cannabis content, access, distribution, age appropriateness, marketing, pricing and medicinal versus recreational uses of marijuana, he said. The idea is to consider the harmful effects of marijuana while avoiding the consequences of criminalization.

'Failed federal law'

Cressy declined to say whether he agreed with the police raids, but said marijuana needs to be decriminalized.

"The police are enforcing a failed federal law. That law needs to change. It's not the responsibility of the police to decide whether or not to enforce law. It's the role of the federal government to change that law. It's failed. It hasn't deterred people from using pot."

In a statement, Toronto medical officer of health Dr. David McKeown said the federal government can regulate marijuana in the same way it regulates alcohol and tobacco.

"Designing a regulatory approach for non-medical cannabis is complex," McKeown said. 

"We are therefore urging the federal government to use an evidence-based public health approach that builds on the lessons learned from regulating tobacco and alcohol. This approach will help reduce potential health harms for the population as a whole."

The approach to regulating non-medical marijuana being proposed to the board includes providing strong government regulatory control on availability and accessibility, setting a minimum purchase age, minimizing promotion, ensuring strong impaired driving policies and restricting use in public places, the statement said.

Medical officer calls for study 

McKeown is recommending that the board urge the federal health minister to earmark funding to study the potential adverse health effects of recreational pot use.

His report noted that the potential effects, particularly with frequent and heavy use, include exposure to cancer-causing chemicals, poor respiratory health and increased risk of developing mental illnesses, especially if there is a genetic predisposition.

"The potential for harm exists particularly for people who consume it frequently or begin use in adolescence. Most of the research to date has focused on frequent, chronic use, and more evidence is needed about the impact of occasional and moderate use, as this comprises the majority of non-medical cannabis use in our society," the report says.