4 questions around marijuana legalization in B.C.

Solicitor General Mike Farnworth announced three pieces of legislation Thursday that form the backbone of B.C.’s new regulations around marijuana.

“Today marks a milestone in this process,” Farnworth said.

But he also cautioned that B.C.’s policy framework around the soon-to-be legalized drug wasn’t set in stone, with the government accepting it would have to be flexible with such a large change to a product that many have used, made, or distributed illegally for decades.  “It’s like any significant policy change like this. There will be things potentially unanticipated … I don’t want to get into the unknown known and the known unknowns, but the reality is, that’s the case with a piece of legislation like this.”

Some items stemming from the legislation, including the legal age (19) and limit (30 grams in a public place) for non-medicinal cannabis are unlikely to change.

But here are four issues that will still evolve.

1. When will it be legal?

B.C.’s new laws won’t be in effect until cannabis becomes legal across Canada — and that date is an open question, since the Canadian Senate won’t vote on the bill until June 7.

“Initially, they said July … now they’re saying eight to 12 weeks after the passage of the bill, but we still don’t know if there will be amendments that change that,” said Farnworth. He said the delay has implications for the province’s ability to teach officers how to police new laws and technology and to ensure marketing rules are followed, among other issues.

2. How many dispensaries will stay open?

In Metro Vancouver and the Capital Regional District, there are many dispensaries that have operated for years, with business targeted toward medicinal marijuana users.

Once B.C.’s legislation passes, they can apply for a licence, but they will be subject to background checks and vetoes from municipalities.

“If you have any links to organized crime, you’re going to be out the door,” said Farnworth.

“Minor offences aren’t going to prevent you from applying, but serious ones, such as trafficking, will get you out.”

Vancouver Coun. Kerry Jang, who co-chaired the provincial-municipal cannabis committee and spoke on behalf of the Union of B.C. Municipalities, said local governments are “delighted” by the proposed laws.

“I think the penalties and enforcement, which is now the exclusive role of the provincial government, is excellent. And they have the teeth and the powers to actually bring everybody into compliance quickly and sort of end the craziness that’s out there in the province.”

3. Will there be enough supply?

Farnworth acknowledged it will be a complex process to move the many suppliers in the province into the government’s wholesale distribution system, which will be run by the Liquor Distribution Branch.

“We want to make sure that [for] small-scale micro production, British Columbia has its fair share,” he said.

“I am confident that we will have a significant range of product and different types of product available in B.C.”

But Dana Larsen, founder of the Vancouver-based marijuana advocacy group Sensible B.C., doesn’t think all long-time users will move to the public market once it becomes legal, especially if the Liquor Distribution Branch doesn’t have the items they’re looking for.

“Most of the products we’re selling now, all the extracts and edibles and salves and creams … would have to be removed from our shelves, because those products aren’t going to be legalized federally until maybe next year, and probably a few years after that,” he said.

“There’s no question that the grey area, free market, whatever you want to call it, will stay for many years to come.”

4. Will laws on impaired driving be upheld?

The government also made several changes to the Motor Vehicle Act, allowing officers to stop people on the road and penalize them for having drugs in their system.

Passengers also aren’t allowed to have marijuana in moving vehicles, and new drivers in ICBC’s graduated licensing program are barred from driving with any THC in their systems

“Some of it is quite disturbing,” said Paul Doroshenko, a defence lawyer who successfully fought against several of B.C.’s laws that gave police broad power to determine impaired driving, and issue immediate penalties based on breathalyzer tests.

Doroshenko was particularly critical of giving police the power to order a 90-day driving prohibition on the spot.

In the proposed legislation, police would be able to cite a driver for impaired driving based on a new definition.

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