8 burning questions about the coming federal pot report

The federal government is about to get advice that will help it decide how to go about legalizing pot. Here are some of the burning questions that may soon be answered.

Who can buy and sell pot, where it will be sold, and who gets the profits, all up in the air

Questions about legalizing recreational use of cannabis abound, but answers may come when the Liberal government's marijuana task force delivers its report. (David McNew/Reuters)

The federal task force on marijuana regulation and legalization hands over its final report to the government today, moving Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's promise to legalize marijuana one step closer to completion.

The nine members of the task force held roundtables with experts across the country, visited two U.S. states where pot is already legal and got advice from about 28,000 Canadians through online consultations. 

It's expected to take days if not weeks for the government to publicly release the panel's report. When it does, here are some big outstanding questions to watch for.

What age limit will it recommend?

Two big reasons why Trudeau says he wants to legalize marijuana are to keep it out of the hands of "children" and to cut off profits to organized crime. 

Setting the legal age too high could encourage young people to keep buying from criminal sources. However, the task force's own discussion paper notes that "science indicates that risks from marijuana usage are elevated until the brain fully matures (i.e., when someone reaches about age 25)."

The U.S. states that have legalized marijuana sales have opted to match the legal drinking age of 21. In Canada, that age is lower — either 18 or 19 years old depending on the province.

The Canadian Medical Association recommends the age limit be 21, with strict limits on quantity and potency until 25.

Where should pot be sold?

Trudeau and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne have talked about selling marijuana at liquor stores, because the retail locations already have systems in place to control inventory and train staff.

But one member of the pot task force has said there's a serious problem with selling marijuana just a few steps away from bottles of vodka​. Back in February, months before the task force was formed, B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall told CBC News that the way alcohol is sold encourages consumption — not something the government wants to do with pot.

There's also a "multiplier effect" when you drink and smoke pot, he said. Essentially, you wind up much more intoxicated. Again, that's certainly not part of Trudeau's stated objectives.

The government could insist on one model for the whole country or let the provinces and territories decide individually.

When will it go on sale?

It's not clear whether the task force will tackle this topic. We know the government has committed to tabling legislation in spring 2017, but it will take time for that bill to become law and for a new system to be set up.

The parliamentary budget officer talked with "industry stakeholders" and estimates recreational sales could start as early as January 2018.

Who profits?

Companies that already sell medical marijuana are certainly hoping to cash in. Their stocks have shot up.

There's still a lot we don't know about who would be allowed to sell and distribute recreational marijuana, but potential corporate profits could be severely limited depending on what's decided about pricing and taxes.

It's not clear whether this will be a cash cow for governments, either. Both the parliamentary budget officer and the head of the task force have warned profits might be relatively small right out of the gate.

The federal government has also said tax revenue would be spent on drug treatment and rehabilitation services, along with research and public education. It's not clear whether the provinces and territories will face the same restrictions on their share of revenues.

What about medical marijuana?

The task force also looked at whether a parallel system would still be needed for medical marijuana users.

If the government set the legal age for recreational pot at 21, but a patient who was 19 had a medical prescription to use pot, how would that situation be regulated? Similarly, if a patient had a prescription for high-potency marijuana that was not for sale in a retail outlet, how would that patient get the medicine? 

Can you grow your own?

It's not clear whether the new system would allow Canadians to grow their own marijuana and if there would be restrictions for home growers. 

The prime minister's marijuana point person, Bill Blair, has said pot won't become just another backyard plant.

"Unlike tomatoes, it is a substance that poses certain significant, both social and health harms, and risks to Canadians," he said in June.

What criminal penalties?

Possessing marijuana will be legal, but that doesn't mean there won't be pot-related crimes. The Liberal campaign platform promises "new, stronger laws" for selling to minors, drugged driving and selling outside the legal system.

Will the government listen?

The task force will make recommendations, but the government doesn't have to follow them.

Just look at the assisted-dying debate: a joint committee of senators and MPs recommended medical aid in dying should be available to anyone who was suffering, even if they didn't have a terminal illness. The government decided that went too far and said a doctor-assisted death would only be granted to people whose death was "reasonably foreseeable."


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