OTTAWA • Legal marijuana will be restricted to people who are 18 and over, unless provinces want to increase that minimum age.
And New Brunswick, not Ottawa, will be responsible for overseeing the distribution and sale of cannabis inside its own borders, the Gallant government now tasked with deciding how the retail sales of pot will go ahead, among several other aspects of legalizing pot yet to be decided.
The federal government has introduced one of the most anticipated packages of legislation in recent memory, putting forward a plan on Thursday to legalize the use of cannabis, as well as proposing new criminal offences and roadside tests in efforts to police it.
It all aims to be in place no later than July 2018, federal officials announced on Thursday.
At that time, adults would be legally able to possess up to 30 grams of cannabis in public, grow up to four plants per household and purchase cannabis in stores.
But that’s only what Ottawa’s legislation is recommending.
The provinces also have the option to lower the possession limit, if it wants to, many of the decisions up to provincial preference.
Meanwhile, details on how pot will be taxed, including licensing fees from marijuana sales, are also yet to be determined.
Finance Minister Cathy Rogers told the Telegraph-Journal on Thursday that the legislation ushers in a “new era,” creating the ability to shut down the marijuana black market, keep it out of the hands of children and, at the same time, create an economic opportunity for New Brunswick.
But it won’t be without challenges.
“It’s really a lot for the province to build into a regulatory framework and we have a limited time frame in which to do it,” Rogers said. “But we have been working really hard on this – we aren’t starting from scratch.”
A first step will see a cannabis working group of Gallant government senior officials release an interim report in summer and then a final report in September.
“Then we have to do a lot of work,” Rogers said. “But I think it’s feasible.”
The federal legislation, introduced in the House of Commons by Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, Health Minister Jane Philpott and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, shows that Ottawa’s role will focus heavily on rules and safeguards.
The federal government will be responsible for licensing production, as well as industry-wide standards, including conducting inspections and enforcing product safety requirements.
The proposed rules would make it against the law to sell cannabis in a package or with a label that could be construed as appealing to young people, to include testimonials or endorsements, or to depict a person, character or animal.
Initially, dried and fresh cannabis will be available for sale, with other products, including edibles, which will be available later.
The federal Liberal government has then introduced sweeping changes to drug and alcohol laws to coincide with legalization, making it against the law to sell cannabis to youth or use a young person to commit a cannabis-related crime.
New penalties would range from a simple police citation to 14 years behind bars.
Driving within two hours of having an illegal level of drugs in your blood system will result in penalties ranging from a $1,000 fine to life imprisonment. Under two nanograms per litre of blood of THC would be allowable for driving.
Illegal distribution or sale will result in fines for small amounts and up to 14 years in jail. Possession of over 30 grams could result in up to five years in jail.
Police will be able to demand a roadside saliva test if they have suspicion of marijuana use, tipped off by red eyes, slurred speech or the smell of marijuana.
The legislation also proposes to increase fines and impose tougher jail penalties for those who drink and drive, also making it easier for police to demand breath samples, the bill removing “suspicion” as a reason for police to demand a breath sample for alcohol.
New Brunswick Medical Society president Dr. Lynn Murphy-Kaulbeck said on Thursday that the province’s doctors appreciate the “strict” penalties that the federal government has proposed for driving impaired, including a renewed focused on tightening up existing impaired driving laws.
But it’s also urging the New Brunswick government to strengthen restrictions proposed by Ottawa.
“While we appreciate the emphasis the new federal bill on recreational marijuana legalization has placed on protecting youth, we are disappointed the government has set the legal minimum age at 18 years,” Murphy-Kaulbeck said. “Though people may be legally recognized as adults on their 18th birthday, in medical terms, their brain continues to develop until the age of 25.”
The medical society believes marijuana should not be sold to those under 25.
“However, we also recognize that a minimum age of 21 would be more realistic, as this would balance young adult access with clinical brain development,” Murphy-Kaulbeck added.
Meanwhile, marijuana production companies that have already set up shop in New Brunswick are applauding the new legislation.
OrganiGram CEO Greg Engel welcomed the legislation, adding the licensed producer and seller of medical marijuana has ramped up by building out its footprint in Moncton in anticipation.
The company has already purchased additional property and buildings that will see production grow from 6,200 kilos annually to 16,000 kilos by the fourth quarter of this year and to 26,000 in 2018.
“We’re anticipating increased demand,” Engel said. “What’s really important is that we now have a time frame for implementation; we know that the government is positioning for a launch next summer.”
Zenabis CEO Kevin Coft welcomed what he said are clear rules on limits for legal possession, age restrictions, marketing rules, distribution and enforcement laws, as well as permitting.
That company is currently building a facility in the province’s northwest.
“This is very socially responsible from the government,” Coft said. “We’re extremely pleased and we think the outlook today looks very promising for New Brunswick and the industry as a whole.”
The provinces largely have the freedom to tailor rules for their own jurisdictions.
They will also be permitted to set their own licensing, distribution and retail sales rules, establish provincial zoning rules for cannabis businesses and change provincial traffic safety laws as they deem necessary.
The precise design of the retail sale is also left to the provinces.
Rogers provided few hints on Thursday as to what New Brunswick plans to pursue in reference to a legal age, a taxation regime, as well as how marijuana will be sold.
But an internal working group struck by the New Brunswick government has already started to narrow in on what the province’s retail model should look like, certain that it would be the province’s responsibility.
Mike Comeau, an assistant deputy minister inside New Brunswick’s Department of Justice and Public Safety, said the working group is focusing on developing three models for government’s consideration.
A government-owned and -controlled retailer is an option, a move that could see marijuana sold by a Crown corporation like NB Liquor at a set of new stores exclusively for cannabis products.
On the other end of a scale, the group is laying out the potential for a private sector model that mirrors tobacco retail or how alcohol his sold in the bars and restaurants that exist under a provincial regulatory regime with routine inspections.
Or it could pitch a mix of the two.
The group is also tasked with addressing the question of a legal age, as well as recommending any other legal restrictions on legalized cannabis New Brunswick should pursue.
“We’re most excited about ending the guess work,” Comeau said in an interview earlier this week. “We’ve known for a year and a half that legalization is coming, but the prep work we have been able to do to date has been based on hints and a little bit of educated guessing on what is likely to land on the plates of provincial governments.
“It’s a big day for that reason.”