Federal-provincial showdown looms over legal pot deadline

Premiers will ask the federal government to postpone its plan to legalize marijuana if issues related to road safety, taxation, training for distributors and public education aren't addressed.

Premiers say time running out to address road safety, taxation and black market issues

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, left, looks to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley as she speaks during the final press conference at the Council of Federation meetings in Edmonton. Premiers discussed pot delays, court delays and the opioid crisis. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

A potential showdown is looming over the federal government's target date to legalize pot.

Premiers announced today they will ask the federal government to postpone its plan to legalize marijuana if issues related to road safety, taxation, training for distributors and public education aren't addressed.

At a news conference to close off the annual summer Council of the Federation meeting in Edmonton, the premiers announced they have formed a working group that will report back on progress by Nov. 1. Premiers will seek an extension if the federal timetable is deemed "unrealistic."

"Premiers around this table agreed that should the federal government not engage adequately on these issues, we will need more time to implement the federal government's decision," said Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, who is chairing this year's meeting.

Premiers also have outstanding concerns about supply and demand and addressing the black market for cannabis.

Just minutes after the premiers released a document detailing the potential request for an extension, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government intends to stick to its timeframe.

A young man camped out at Sunset Beach Park in Vancouver smokes a water pipe during the annual 4/20 rally. The minimum age for legal pot smoking will be determined by the provinces. (David Horemans/CBC)

"Young people have easy access to marijuana, they shouldn't. Criminal organizations and street gangs are making millions of dollars in profit off the sale of marijuana and we need to put an end to this policy that does not work," he told reporters in Laval, Que.

"We are continuing to work with the provinces to ensure that the framework will be in place as quickly as possible and we are still … looking at summer of 2018 as the time where the legalized framework will come into play right."

PM's deadline 'super-duper'

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, who had pitched the idea of demanding a one-year extension, reacted with sarcasm to Trudeau's insistence on the timing for legalization.

"That's great, the prime minister wants to stick to his deadline, that's super-duper," he said. "Now he needs to then hear what the premiers of his country, our country, have said we need help with."

Pallister called the legalization of marijuana a "monumental undertaking" and said there are significant and serious public policy issues that must be tackled co-operatively with the federal government.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, left, and Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil speak privately during the final press conference at the Council of Federation meetings in Edmonton today. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

"If we get this wrong, the same consequences that the prime minister is alluding to may well occur in a number of negative ways for Canadians," he said. "We're all concerned about the safety of those who choose to use these products, the safety of those who choose not to use these products."

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said it is not a tug of war over a targeted date.

"The starting point is, have we met the public safety concerns, are we sure we have the provisions in place to protect youth, do we understand what the highway traffic implications are?" she said. "It's those issues that we have to resolve because we have to keep people safe."

Trudeau on Pot and the Premiers

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Featured VideoPrime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to reporters in Quebec City today

Along with the pending legalization of pot, premiers discussed a number of other topics on their final day of meetings:

  • How to tackle the escalating opioid crisis.
  • Working for better prescription drug coverage across Canada.
  • Addressing the lack of adequate nutritious food in the North.
  • Making progress on measures to speed up court processes to address the fallout of the Supreme Court's Jordan decision, which set timelines for criminal trials.

Yesterday, Pallister said provinces have not had time to implement the necessary policy frameworks to legalize marijuana.

"I'm not suggesting we go back and fight the battle around the legalization debate, I'm only suggesting that we should, in a clear-headed fashion, consider the timing of the introduction," he said.  

Rushing to legalize pot could not only endanger lives, it could jeopardize business relations with the U.S., where many states have strict rules around marijuana, Pallister said. Premiers should use their time and efforts focusing on NAFTA right now and allow more time for public awareness and policy formation around cannabis, he said.

Other premiers in Edmonton for the annual summer meeting did not want to wade too far into the debate before today's group chat.

'Economic opportunity'

But New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant said that once those tricky issues of production, sales and distribution are worked out, legalized cannabis could be an "economic opportunity" for the provinces.

Heading into Wednesday's session, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said extra time would help the provinces prepare, but he isn't holding out hope the federal government will bend on its timeline.

Premiers are grappling with rules around where cannabis should be sold and distributed as the July 2018 target date for legalization looms. (David Horemans/CBC)

"If the federal government were to announce that they want to push it by a few months, that would probably lead to a better work preparation on our part, but we cannot take the risk of not being present and ready in time for the July 1 deadline, so we're working on that basis," he said.

Marijuana legalization activist Jodie Emery warned that the Liberal bill as proposed will not address the criminal black market problems caused by prohibition, but she condemned any plan to delay legalization.

"It's absurd, costly and harmful to society to wait yet another year for legalization, and to continue criminalizing millions of Canadians who use cannabis in the meantime," she said.

Time needed for public awareness

MADD Canada chief executive officer Andy Murie said he has no problem with the current deadline as long as the accompanying legislation on impaired driving passes by December 2017. That would deliver a six-month notice to drivers prior to legalization, he said.

"It also gives six months for police and public education messaging," he said.

The issue of age of access is also one premiers must grapple with. The federal government has set a minimum age of 18, but some say it should be higher and standardized across the country.

Murie said he expects most provinces will establish zero-tolerance restrictions for using marijuana for drivers 22 and under.

With files from Peter Zimonjic