Column: Possession should be decriminalized ahead of marijuana legalization

The Liberal government has finally revealed a date for the tabling of legislation for the legalization and regulation of marijuana.  Despite the introduction date of Spring 2017, it has been widely reported that the process will still take until July 2018 or possibly longer.  The government’s point man on this file, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice Bill Blair, has already thrown doubt on a July 2018 implementation, stating that it ‘’was not his date.’’

I want to make sure that the government brings in comprehensive legislation that not only allows for legalization, but protects Canadians from impaired driving and prevents marketing to children.

We have known since 2015 that marijuana will be legalized, but our justice system is still handing out charges and criminal records to people who possess small amounts.

There are about 60,000 Canadians arrested every year for simple possession of marijuana and about 22,000 who will end up with permanent criminal records. The government has the power to immediately remove criminal penalties from marijuana possession in the lead up to legalization.

Not only would this save thousands of Canadians from receiving criminal records for something that is soon to be legal, but this is an approach supported by both a former Liberal Prime Minister and the Conservative Party of Canada.

Jean Chrétien has claimed that criminal records for pot possession are completely unacceptable, and even the Conservatives have called on the government to remove possession from the criminal code.

The majority of convictions for pot possession involve young Canadians who should not be burdened with criminal records for the rest of their lives, especially when the government plans to legalize marijuana.

Many Canadians were led to believe that they were voting for a Liberal government that would act quickly to stop arresting people and giving criminal records for marijuana possession. Unfortunately, law enforcement has continued cracking down in some Canadian jurisdictions, further wasting precious resources and bringing greater confusion to the legal system.

We have all witnessed the confusion on Vancouver Island created by a lack of clarity in the application of law. In the absence of federal direction or leadership, local municipalities and police forces are trying to fill the void, often with conflicting approaches.  Look no further than the City of Victoria’s moves to regulate the 35 marijuana dispensaries that are operating within its borders.  Victoria Police are allowing these businesses to operate.    

If there is confusion between municipalities and the police, we can well imagine the confusion that exists in the general community. With such lack of clarity in the current regulatory regime, the federal government has no business continuing to give out criminal records.

As the NDP’s Justice Critic, I will continue to work with my colleagues to make sure that the legalization and regulatory framework for marijuana is rolled out carefully and fairly for all concerned.

(Printed in the Duncan Free Press, April 5, 2017)