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Government, the business community and advocacy groups have varied opinions on marijuana legalization

marijuana in an indoor cannabis farm
marijuana in an indoor cannabis farm

By Sam Macdonald The News As the deadline for the federal government’s move to legalize marijuana in July 2018 approaches, users, stakeholders, business people and politicians involved in the matter offer a variety of concerns.

Hank Merchant, CEO of HBB Medical, a medical marijuana dispensary, welcomes the introduction of guidelines and regulations on the sale of marijuana, “because there are people who have no qualms about operating outside the law.”

“We, as medical marijuana dispensaries, don’t do that,” Merchant added.

Merchant hopes all levels of government will take measures that are responsible and prudent when going about legalizing pot.

As a seller of medicinal marijuana, Merchant said there are several criteria his business must meet, to be able legally to sell marijuana in Canada.

Dispensaries are not permitted near schools or public gathering locations, and have to be at least 300 metres away from them. Dispensaries are forbidden to be within 300 metres of other dispensaries.

Merchant noted that dispensaries are required by law to be wheelchair accessible; need to be a certain square footage and subject to regular surveillance.
HBB Medical follows the same guidelines for dispensaries in Colorado, Washington and Vancouver, Merchant said. He hopes that will be the standard to which provinces aspire.

“You have doctors who recognize the importance of medicinal marijuana as a medication. Those doctors have to identify patients and clients by screening them,” said Merchant. “The first step is to get a prescription by a medical doctor.”
One major distinction between HBB Medical and the kinds of recreational marijuana businesses expected to arrive next summer, is that “there needs to be a need,” Merchant said.
Before a person can be sold marijuana at dispensaries, a specific medical necessity must be present – which won’t be the case with recreational marijuana when it’s legalized.

“You can’t just walk into the store and buy a product unless you have a prescription,” said Merchant, whose business provides medicinal marijuana to 12,000 clients.

Merchant noted that although the laws governing the sale of marijuana will change, he doesn’t anticipate it having too much of an effect on his business, since he is licensed to sell medicinal marijuana – something still governed on the federal level, and for which laws are already in place.
“Right now, we’re certainly in the grey area. It’s not black and white – it’s grey,” said Merchant. “We’re thankful to be allowed to continue to serve clients.”

While federal laws govern the sale of medicinal marijuana, laws relating to the sale of recreational marijuana will be determined provincially – and in that case, there is still some uncertainty in Nova Scotia.

Karla MacFarlane, MLA for Pictou and opposition justice critic, sees a legislative storm looming on the horizon for Nova Scotia. MacFarlane said there are still too many unknowns, in terms of the changes the government has to implement.

“We’re dealing with a colossal social, justice and economic issue for society,” said MacFarlane, who added that the provincial government has been ”dragging its feet” on rolling out a plan.

MacFarlane commended Ontario, the first – and only – province to roll out a strategy for legalized marijuana, while in the case of Nova Scotia, “we were told there would be consultations held towards the end of the summer, or in early fall.”

MacFarlane wants to see an outline of Nova Scotia’s plan, so that stakeholders and the public are part of a conversation. She said she finds the absence of a rigorous and thorough plan troubling, at this stage.
“Dr. Robert Strang, our chief medical officer of health, said verbatim, that he is concerned about the July 2018 deadline,” said MacFarlane, emphasizing that there needs to be more in place.

Following a request from The News, the Department of Justice issued the following statement Friday: As we continue to work toward the legalization of cannabis, the health and safety of Nova Scotians, especially children and youth, is our top priority. Cannabis legalization is complex and will have significant impacts on provinces, territories and municipalities. There is a lot of work to do and many decisions to make in the coming months around the distribution model, health and safety, taxation and the legislative steps we need to take to be ready for July 2018. We will be looking at various options and will be consulting with Nova Scotians this fall.

MacFarlane contended that that far too many questions remain unanswered. These include questions pertaining to youth possession and repercussions; where people will be allowed to smoke it; charges for violating those laws; the minimum age – and where the profits from regulated sales of cannabis will go.

“The government has done nothing to indicate they have info going forward on this,” said MacFarlane. “They haven’t even set up dates for consultations. All they have is a link to the federal information on (their website).”

The best way for the province to move forward with a plan is cautiously, MacFarlane stated, adding, “Let’s get it right. We don’t want to rush through it. We just finished the election, and we have lots of time.”

She also alluded to a number of police groups opposing the legalization of marijuana by July 2018, saying, “police commissioners are federally out doing interviews, saying there’s no way police can be ready for July 2018.”
MacFarlane’s comments refer to representatives of police services across Canada – including the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, Ontario Provincial Police and Saskatoon Police Service – having said they will not be prepared to enforce any new laws relating to legalized marijuana, if those laws are implemented by July, 2018.

The Canadian Psychological Association (CPA) has raised concerns of its own. In a media release, the CPA recommended several steps to mitigate harm.
The CPA cautions that cannabis, being the most commonly used illicit drug among people aged 15-24, is potentially harmful among adolescent users, being associated with impaired verbal learning, memory and attention. The CPA also stated it has been associated with disorders such as psychosis, depression and bipolar disorder.
David Teplin, chair of the CPA task force on cannabis, recommended the federal government invest in more research on marijuana, adding there are gaps in what is known.
Another investment recommended by the CPA is in harm reduction approaches to treating problematic use of marijuana.
Dr. Karen Cohen, CEO of the CPA, said evidence-based psychological treatments for mental and substance used disorders in Canada have always been a concern for the CPA, because of a lack of resources available for them.
“The legalization of cannabis will bring about increased tax revenue for governments that could be allocated to prevention and treatment of those common disorders,” said Cohen.

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