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Donald MacPherson, Executive Director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, says there’s a long road to travel, but it can be done

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. One of Justin Trudeau’s campaign promises was to legalize marijuana in Canada. Here he is before the election victory in Surrey, British Columbia, the province that is better known for being the pot agricultural center of the world. JUSTIN TRUDEAU: So the Liberal Party is committed to legalizing and regulating marijuana, controlling it in a way that is going to protect our kids and remove criminal elements from it. And we’re going to get started on that right away. PERIES: But according to a leaked briefing note to the Prime Minister from a legal expert, Trudeau’s plan to decriminalize pot may be more complicated by international treaties that Canada is already signatory to. Joining us now from Vancouver to discuss whether Trudeau’s campaign promise will go up in smoke or not is Donald MacPherson. He is the executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, and one of Canada’s leading figures in drug policy. Donald, welcome to the Real News Network. DONALD MACPHERSON: It’s a pleasure to be on the show. PERIES: So Donald, the briefing note prepared for the prime minister obtained by Canadian press through an access to information process, legalizing pot in Canada may be more complicated than Trudeau thought because of its obligations and previous, being previous signatories to various international treaties. Will he be able to deliver on his campaign pledge? MACPHERSON: I think he will. It will take two to three years to do, and it will take some discussion with the international players. But I think in the context of cannabis policy change, the landscape of cannabis policy is changing significantly in the hemisphere, and Canada now is going to put their oar in on making sure we arrive at a better policy for cannabis, in the hemisphere and globally. PERIES: Now, when you look on the internet, there’s various websites with a debate going on as to whether Canada should legalize marijuana and medical marijuana, and apparently a lot of–since it is already legal in terms of medical prescriptions, apparently a lot of stores have popped up in the country getting prepared for this legalization. What is the public sentiment in the country like at the moment? MACPHERSON: Well, Trudeau was elected with a large majority, and cannabis was, cannabis legalization or marijuana legalization was one of his, one of his policies that he talked about, as you noted. So public support, the poll–if you poll Canadians, over almost 70 percent of them want changes to cannabis policy in the country. So Trudeau is really–usually the public is ahead of the politicians on issues like this. Well, Trudeau’s finally figured that out, and the public is firmly behind him. The international community is in a, in a vigorous discussion at the moment about the problems with countries going their own way with moving towards regulation of cannabis. Uruguay, the United States, the states within the United States. And now Canada has sort of thrown down the gauntlet. So it does pose some problems for the treaties, but the way to really resolve those are to amend the treaties. It’s not the treaties–it’s not Canada’s problem, it’s the treaties that are bad. [This is] bad law. Cannabis prohibition is bad law, so it needs to be changed. PERIES: And so this issue, Donald, has been an issue perhaps since Trudeau won, the [inaud.] where, you know, legalization of marijuana is a popular movement and a mood in the country. But has this effort, to address marijuana policy in the country, taken a step back during the Stephen Harper Conservative Party reign? MACPHERSON: Well, the answer is yes and no. to some extent, under the Stephen Harper regime the largest medical cannabis system in the world was created. Health Canada, our federal department, redesigned the medical marijuana system and issued licenses, began issuing licenses to license producers who have no cap on the amount of cannabis they can grow. And they also made the process for applying for the patient, to become a patient, much easier. On the other side they have, were very harsh on the sort of adult use, non-medical use side. They brought in harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws. So it was a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde show under the Harper regime. PERIES: And so what’s going to happen if it becomes legalized? What does the climate in Canada look like? You’d be able to walk into a marijuana shop and buy marijuana? MACPHERSON: I think that’s where the, that’s where the debate has really gone. It’s no longer whether to create a regulated market for cannabis, it’s how to create a regulated market and what that would look like. How much government control there will be over the retail side of it, the quality production, who’s going to grow it, who’s going to get to sell it. All of those questions are up in the air at the moment, and that’s what the next year or two will be about. Not just dealing with the national treaty side of things, but coming up with a, a strong public health-oriented approach to regulating cannabis. PERIES: So Donald, how will that work? Now, currently I imagine a lot of the drugs are coming into Canada illicitly. And once it’s regulated, and let’s say Canada managed to negotiate out of the treaties, will that mean, like, shipments of drugs, legally, will be coming into Canada? MACPHERSON: I think most of the, most cannabis that Canadians use is grown in Canada presently, and I don’t think that will change. There’s very little importation of cannabis from other jurisdictions. As you referred to in your opening remarks. Canada is quite well-known for producing good, high-quality cannabis for 40 years, now. What will happen is that new players will move into the market. New investors. Bigger money. And the industry will start to take shape above ground, as it has in Colorado and Washington in the U.S., and in Uruguay. PERIES: And for you, Donald, having worked in this area for a very long time, what concerns you the most about legalizing it? MACPHERSON: Well, first of all, I think, I think it’s the right thing to do to legalize it. But I would be concerned, as many others are, about the business model. I would be concerned that if Du Maurier and Rothmans and Players and big tobacco were able to, to promote, and heavily promote, cannabis, I think–I think you’ll see in Canada we’re very well positioned, our public health community has been very on top of this issue. They are actually recommending regulation of cannabis with a strong public health framework in place. So you would not have advertising, they ban promotion of events, and those sorts of things. Age limits, quality control, all of the things you do to regulate alcohol and other products. I think that’s the main bone of contention, is how, how high-profile the cannabis business promotion will be. PERIES: And one thing that concerns everyone, including Justin Trudeau, is the age limit and whether kids will have access to it. And obviously, you know, easy access to it. Your thoughts on that? MACPHERSON: Well, that’s a difficult question, too. I mean, in Canada the drinking age in most provinces is 19. I think it’s 18 in Quebec. Some people want the age restriction on Cannabis to be as high as 25. It’s a bit of a problem, because then you would be consigning young people, who use cannabis quite a bit, to the illegal market. So I would suspect there’ll be quite a debate over whether the age limit should be 19 or 21. It still consigns 16 and 17-year-olds to the illegal market, which remains a problem, because we know that 16 and 17-year-olds do smoke cannabis. So that’s going to be a tough one for us to figure out. But I suspect it will be in similar line with alcohol in terms of the age limits. But age limits are absolutely very important. PERIES: And do you think decriminalization of it for all ages will be the impact? MACPHERSON: No. I don’t think so. I think, I think–you mean for people who are under the age of majority? PERIES: Well, yeah, I mean, for–if, if we are going to legalize it then obviously it’ll be decriminalized. But one of the greatest problems you’re facing is 16-year-olds getting criminal records because of, you know, they’ve been caught smoking pot at the back of the school or the back of the house or in the laneway. Do you think, along with it, you know, kids won’t be so stigmatized with their legal, criminal records, in the process? MACPHERSON: I agree. I think that will be the case. And I think who will be stigmatized are legal retailers who sell to young people. And I think there should be fairly rigid laws, as we have around alcohol and tobacco, in that regard. PERIES: All right, Donald. I thank you so much for joining us and shedding light on this process. MACPHERSON: Thank you very much. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Donald MacPherson is the executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and one of Canada's leading figures in drug policy. He advocates policies based on principles of public health, human rights, social inclusion, and scientific evidence and moving away from a criminal justice paradigm where people with health problems are criminalized.

MacPherson worked for the City of Vancouver for 22 years, first as director of the Carnegie Community Centre in the Downtown Eastside and the last 12 as Drug Policy Coordinator for the city. In 2000 he published Vancouver's groundbreaking Four Pillars Drug Strategy that precipitated a broad public discussion on issues related to addiction.

In 2007 he received the Kaiser Foundation National Award of Excellence in Public Policy in Canada. In 2009 the City of Vancouver was awarded the Canadian Urban Institutes Secure City Award for the Four Pillars Drug Strategy. In 2009 MacPherson was awarded the Richard Dennis Drug Peace Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Drug Policy Reform by the Drug Policy Alliance in the United States. MacPherson is involved at local, national and international levels and is a founding member of the Drug Policy Coalition.