For Newfoundland and Labrador’s minister of justice, the national legalization of recreational cannabis is much more than an economic issue, a health issue or a legal issue — it’s a new way of governing and thinking about governing. This new landscape, Andrew Parsons recently told reporters, is "the hugest shift in public policy that we've seen of a social nature probably since Confederation."
Oct. 17 has come and gone, and the public debate over legal marijuana has died to an ember, at least for now, but the impact of that public policy shift continues to reverberate.
“The legalization of cannabis is a significant issue that impacts virtually every Newfoundlander and Labradorian, regardless of whether they intend to use the product,” Parsons told Legal Feeds.
That impact includes time, effort and energy being expended by government officials to prepare for legalization, he notes. “Almost every department in the provincial government has been involved throughout this process. A cross-departmental steering committee has been meeting regularly since last year and working with federal, provincial and territorial colleagues to examine all aspects of legalization including distribution, regulation, public safety and potential economic benefits.”
The road to legalization has also been paved with legislative upheaval, changes and controversy. The provincial Cannabis Control Act was passed, and amendments were made to the Smoke Free Environment Act, 2005, the Liquor Corporation Act and the Highway Traffic Act. According to the justice department, the purpose of the new and amended legislation is five-fold: to promote public health and safety, discourage use by youth, encourage responsible use by adults, keep profits from criminals and reduce the burden on the criminal justice system.
In October, the province cleared the final legislative hurdle in advance of legalized recreational cannabis with amendments to the Highway Traffic Regulations and the introduction of regulations in three key areas: control, licensing and operations. Issues addressed through these regulations include everything from store setup and location, employee conduct and the types of products that can be legally sold in cannabis stores to consumption in private residences to restricting access to minors.
While the laws are now on the books, Parsons has acknowledged that the legalization of cannabis will not put an end to the black market. He told reporters that buying cannabis from unlicensed dealers was illegal before Oct. 17 and it remains illegal. He says he hopes the new regulations will help negate the need for a black market. Pricing strategies are also intended to dampen the allure and the need for illegal weed. Indeed, at present, Newfoundland and Labrador has the lowest cannabis prices in the country: $5.87 a gram for a product called The Advocate. At that price, the government and law enforcement are hoping that going elsewhere for weed will be unnecessary and the black market will wither rather than blossom.
In an effort to balance legal issues with economic optimism with health concerns, the Newfoundland and Labrador government has reached out to the more than 400,000 adults that call the province home to engage and inform them. In September, it launched a major awareness campaign that included a mix of traditional and online spots on radio, in transit shelters, on popular websites and even in hockey arenas across the province.
The goal, Parsons says, was to drive people to the Cannabis NL website, a division of the Newfoundland Labrador Liquor Corporation. Last year, the government authorized the NLC to regulate the possession, sale and delivery of non-medical cannabis. Included in these new responsibilities was the authority to list products, set pricing and to be the exclusive online retailer of non-medical cannabis in the province.
The awareness campaign and ongoing efforts to educate coincided with the efforts of organizations such as WorkplaceNL and the NLC itself, says Parsons. “We all realize that with such a significant policy shift, we all have a role to play in ensuring that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are as informed as possible about cannabis.”
One key message Parsons is personally driving home: Don’t get behind the wheel if you’re high. “Impaired drivers have no place on our roads,” he says. “We will work to ensure that those who drive while impaired are taken off the roads and punished in accordance with the law. Just as what happens today, our police agencies will enforce impaired driving laws, which currently prohibit driving while impaired by any drug.”