Cannabis Consultations: Answering questions with more questions

 

The only thing clear about the legalization of cannabis is – there are more questions than answers. Since the Trudeau Liberals foisted responsibility of delivering the stash, provincial governments have been hunting for a flashlight to see through the policy smoke.

In Nova Scotia, Justice, Finance and Health and Wellness are co-leads on the file, but there are lots of other folks who have a stake in this including Business, Community Services and Education. The conflicting priorities and broad implication of this massive policy piece were clearly on display at the consultation session I attended this week.

From the medical community, there is deep concern about the accelerating proliferation of cannabis use among youth. For good reason. More and more evidence is piling up around the impact more potent forms of cannabis have on adolescents’ brains undergoing rapid and extensive development. Instances of schizophrenia among younger and younger cohorts have been growing significantly in the last 20 years, coincidentally tracking with the increase of both the use and the potency of the product.

The number of youth (22%) and young adults (26%) who used cannabis in 2013 was more than two and a half times that of adults 25 and older. But, let’s put that in context – 60% of Canadian youth between 15 and 19 drink alcohol. There was lots of discussion about how legalization, taxation, and control must put the binders on youth access to cannabis, but if our experience with alcohol is any indication, we should keep those expectations in check. I will admit however, that train has left the station.

It’s now up to the provinces to figure how to implement this policy pronouncement from on high and the public consultation has begun. MQO Research in doing a handful of facilitated roundtables and there’s an opportunity for online input at http://novascotia.ca/cannabis.

The questions posed in the online survey and at our roundtable session deal with the following; Age restrictions, where folks can or should be able to smoke it, how we deal with impaired drivers and what the delivery model should look like (who should sell it and how).

On the question of age, the medical community says the age for legal use should be around 25. While those arguments are science-based and clearly well-intentioned, I’ll refer back to the usage rates of alcohol with an existing restriction of 18 or 19. Once cannabis is a legal product, the likelihood that usage among youth will decrease, is a pipedream. In my opinion, and this is my opinion, societal acceptance of cannabis as a legal product will not discourage access and use among youth any more than it has discouraged access to alcohol or porn. Setting the legal age at 25 would be seen as laughable given current usage statistics. Restricting or reducing usage will depend exclusively on vigorous education campaigns and severe restrictions on marketing to kids and product oversight.

On the topic of where folks can smoke it, there is some consensus the province should stick with its smoke-free places legislation, but other questions emerge. There are those who feel users of medical cannabis should be able to smoke it at home. If that’s the case, how do differentiate between medical and recreational cannabis use and how do you balance the rights of those who own or coexist in apartment complexes and don’t want their properties to smell like a Negril nightclub. You get the sense there will be lots of work for lawyers in days ahead.

As for the impaired driving question, apparently, there is no answer. Strangely, the question posed was about the severity of penalties for driving while under the influence of cannabis. Police still don’t have a chemically based way of estimating what the drug is doing in the brain. A blood test exists that can detect some cannabis components, but there is no widely accepted, standardized amount in the breath or blood that gives police or courts or anyone else a good sense of who is impaired. So in light of no available tests reliable enough to determine the level of impairment among cannabis users, why are we talking about penalties? I’m sure Crown lawyers are really looking forward to this busy work. There is consensus, however, that getting drunk, getting high and then driving is a very poor idea indeed.

The fourth subject area dealt with how cannabis should it be sold in Nova Scotia? CFIB members in the province are evenly split on this issue. When asked in 2016; should government agencies (e.g. liquor commissions) be exclusively responsible for the retail sale of marijuana? 41% said YES, 41% said NO and 14% were UNSURE.

There are arguments for a public sector monopoly, except none of them are particularly compelling and not surprisingly, all center on command and control. A public sector monopoly, such as the model in Ontario and the recently announced direction in New Brunswick, seems simply to be the path of least resistance for politicians and bureaucrats. Why they believe the public sector delivery model of anything is the gold standard remains perplexing.

There are other questions with a public sector monopoly which need answers. Will public sector salaries/benefits and bricks and mortar costs add to the final cost to the consumer? Add this to the federal and provincial tax, are we leaving the door open for the underground economy to undercut and continue to thrive. What are the implications of being regulator and retailer? The decision has been already made not to co-locate sales with alcohol, so why would we build another bricks and mortar version of the NSLC or LNB? When New Brunswick rolled out their public sector monopoly this week, one staggering question was not even addressed…the cost.

The government should carefully examine the option of private sector retailers rather than simply defaulting to building another bureaucracy. Politicians also need to answer this larger question; should selling recreational cannabis be a core government service and can we afford spending precious tax dollars on building the required infrastructure to do so? Are there better options for generating external private sector investment with appropriate government oversight? My guess is there would be an entrepreneur or two willing to pony up some dough for the opportunity to sell legal pot. Just sayin’.

Then there’s the issue of online sales. This system, by most reports, has been working just fine for medicinal cannabis, however, there is resistance emerging as some folks feel children will now gain access to credit cards and somehow game the system. Note to skeptics, children are already buying weed. Having them input online credit information, wait for days or weeks and sign for packages at the door from bonded delivery agents will not make the process easier for them. (“Hey Mom, did that FedEx package for me arrive?”)

There were also puzzling omissions in the consultation. For example, there is little guidance for employers or employees on implications around occupational health and safety issues or work restrictions. Additionally, there has been no indication of how the provincial governments are creating any alignment of regulation either in the region or nationally. Does this mean we will end up with another massive patchwork of regulatory regimes?

As you can see, legalizing cannabis is creating many more questions than answers, and we haven’t even started with the edibles. Gummy bear anyone?

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