When Canada announced plans to become the first country in the world to fully legalize recreational cannabis, it did so with a deadline that immediately raised eyebrows.
Pot will be legal, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised early in his mandate. The date that was floated early on: July 1, 2018.
And so, over the past two years, as the Canadian government has gone through the motions of trying to figure out how to create a legal pot market and avoid some of the pitfalls experienced by some legal jurisdictions like Colorado and Washington. Both the federal and provincial governments have gone through large public consultations, set up task forces and committees, and done the tough work to figure out how to turn the black market into a legal one.
But while pot advocates were asking the government to step on the gas, many of the provinces were exasperated by the deadline. The legislation that set up the framework for the new legal system, after all, wasn’t introduced until last April. That’s left the provinces, who are responsible for regulating how the drug is actually sold and distributed, scrambling.
Amidst all that, Ottawa has remained cagey about what the actual legalization date would be.
The initial commitment, July 1, was tweaked to “on or before July 1,” in part because the first of the month is Canada Day, and there was some immediate fretting about tarnishing Canada’s national holiday with images of joint-smoking hippies. Then it was tinkered with further, to “no later than July 2018.”
Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said last week that she was “very confident” that they’d hit the July 1 deadline. Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould echoed that sentiment, while appearing before a Senate committee. “I’m confident we will be in a good place for the legalization of cannabis in July 2018,” she told the senators. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, meanwhile, underscored the fact that the government was trying to up-end some serious history, and that’s not easy.
“This is a major, major change in the law. The existing law has been in place for 100 years. It’s now changing and it’s changing in a transformational way,” he told reporters last week. “That requires a lot of reorientation in the system.”
Unlike his colleagues, Goodale wouldn’t commit to July — just “this summer.” To that end, he highlighted the fact that some of the regulations may not be in place by July, which could lead to some real confusion.
At the same time, the idea that Ottawa could actually move the date up was met with some exasperation and skepticism. Most provinces, even now, have not figured out the basics of how the legal market will work: Whether pot stores will be private, or government-run; whether pot will be sold with alcohol; or whether cannabis will be sold online-only.
Complicating things further, the Senate, Canada’s unelected upper house, has yet to actually pass the legalization bill. Should they try and amend the legislation, there’s no telling how long it could take to reconcile their changes with the version passed by the House of Commons.
Ottawa has also yet to unveil final federal regulations, which will govern how marijuana is packaged and advertised, the type of security required, amongst other things.