Provincial rules for legal pot could bring new ways to run afoul of the law

If federal legislation moves forward as planned, as of next summer Canadians will be able to grow, possess and consume marijuana legally. But that doesn't mean they'll be able to do it without potential legal consequences.

'We want to err on the side of caution,' N.B. health minister says after unveiling lock-it-up rule

A police officer speaks with an employee outside the Cannabis Culture shop during a police raid in Vancouver, B.C., earlier this year. There will be several ways to run into trouble even when pot is legalized. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

If federal legislation moves forward as planned, as of next summer Canadians will be able to grow, possess and consume marijuana legally — but that doesn't mean they won't face limits.

The Liberal government has said it wants to see marijuana made legal by July 1, 2018. There's debate as to whether that timeline will hold, but some provinces aren't waiting to find out as they introduce legislation and rules around how pot will be sold and where it can be used.

People in New Brunswick learned this week that even after pot is legalized, cannabis users will be required to keep their legal cannabis in a locked container or locked room.

New Brunswick isn't alone in its move to supplement federal legalization with locally-grown rules.

In Alberta, for example, people will have to set up an indoor grow room, even if they have a sprawling acreage far from their nearest neighbour. They'll also have to keep their plants under 100 centimetres.

Lock it up?

Critics question whether some of the rules are meant to try to assuage the worry of people who oppose legalization.

Eugene Oscapella, a lawyer who has specialized in drug policy for three decades, says New Brunswick's lock-it-up rule makes little sense, especially given the hazards already found in many homes.

The former director of legislation for the Canadian Bar Association says it's far more dangerous for young people to get their hands on alcohol because with "a bottle of whisky, they can kill themselves."

"I was given some opioids recently after surgery, and if they got access to that bottle, there's probably enough pills in there to kill somebody. There is no lethal dosage of marijuana," says Oscapella, who wonders if the rule is a vestige of "reefer madness ... Or maybe that's the way they're trying to sell it to the public."

Benoit Bourque, New Brunswick's health minister, told CBC News the rule is about sending "a clear message to the population of New Brunswick that this product has risks ... There is a reason why it was illegal."

He said people are "very much aware of the dangers associated with alcohol, people have seen it. It's been a staple of our society for ever. And when it comes to prescription drugs, again, most people know they have to be stored in a safe place."

Bourque noted that public perception is a concern, too.

"Let's say we're in August 2018, and we have some adults that are consuming cannabis and they leave the premises, and some cannabis remains on the table right there, and children would go and consume it and get sick and it would make the headlines."

Bourque says that had the province not put in regulations, the public "would probably say 'Why didn't you do anything about it?' We want to be proactive and we want to say we are doing something about it."

Encouraging 'responsible use'

Bill Blair, the Trudeau government's point-man for marijuana, says the federal government accepts the right of the provinces to add their own rules, as long as they aren't too burdensome.

"We're not creating a criminal offence of possession [for] less than 30 grams," Blair said. "They can't come out and say you can only have one gram. But at the same time, they can put in rules that encourage responsible use."

Blair says that includes the ability to impose fines, and to enforce the prohibition on possession by minors aged 12-18.

In Alberta all marijuana will have to be grown indoors, even if growers own large swaths of land, far from neighbours. (CBC)

"Kids are not going to get a criminal record, but the police can still enforce the prohibition. They'll be able to give the kid a ticket, and they'll have the authority to seize the cannabis."

Some provincial regulations, though, have the potential to restrict the federal right. An example is Alberta's rule that marijuana plants must be kept to a metre high. The federal government's initial proposals had suggested a similar rule, but the height limit was eventually scrapped.

"It's an attempt to limit the quantity," says Oscapella. "It's really about the amount of marijuana you can produce at home."

(If so, it seems destined to fail. Indoor growers of marijuana often deliberately "top" their plants, because they know that cutting them shorter can cause the plant to branch out to the sides and produce multiple flower-bearing "colas".)

But Oscapella says a bigger issue is Alberta's rule requiring people to grow indoors.

"The whole notion of no outdoor grow is that they don't want people coming and stealing your plants. Well, if it's a legal regulated product you can buy at the liquor store or cannabis control board of Alberta, there's not that much motive to steal it."

Oscapella adds that indoor growing brings its own set of problems.

"One of the concerns that landlords have is that tenants are going to be growing this stuff and wreaking havoc with mould and so on in rental properties. And then you've got to look at putting provisions in rental agreements that people are not allowed to grow in the home, and are responsible for any damages they cause if they do grow."

Rules may relax

But Oscapella believes the tighter restrictions will fall away as the novelty of legalization wears off.

"The experience in Colorado shows that it's better to start out strict and then loosen the rules."

Some provinces have even hinted marijuana retail outlets will be rather dour places, where products are hidden away and sampling is out of the question. Oscapella says anyone who remembers buying alcohol in Ontario a generation ago will feel right at home.

"At that time you couldn't even see the bottles. You'd write down what you want and give the paper to someone and they'd go into a backroom and come out with a bottle in a bag. So we started strict and we've relaxed it."

New Brunswick's Bourque draws the same analogy for his province.

"We want to err on the side of caution," he says. "If we look at the way we distributed alcohol in New Brunswick, in the beginning it was very, very stringent .... Now alcohol is much more readily available. There is an evolutionary process also with cannabis."

"As we go along, if we see that the population of New Brunswick is ready to have more relaxed regulations, we'll certainly look at it."


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 18 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.


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