4 N.B. opposition parties call for relaxed enforcement of pot laws for now

4 N.B. opposition parties call for relaxed enforcement of pot laws for now

New Brunswick's four opposition parties say marijuana should be decriminalized now, so people won't be punished for possessing small quantities of a drug that will be legal by July 2018.

The federal government recently announced it will legalize marijuana July 1, 2018, following the recommendation of a task force.

The government has not said how police or courts should handle the product until then, although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reminded the public that marijuana is still illegal. 

Speaking for the provincial New Democratic Party on Thursday, Andrew MacLean said prosecution of drug offences makes sense for large drug busts, but arresting people for possessing small quantities "is unacceptable."

The government should decriminalize marijuana, so people won't have their "lives ruined over something that is quite trivial and will be legal within a year," he said during the CBC New Brunswick Political Panel.

Progressive Conservative MLA Carl Urquhart and Green Party Leader David Coon agreed that people shouldn't be prosecuted for small-scale possession of marijuana.

But Coon said it was frustrating the federal group studying the legalization of marijuana didn't make public its findings on how small drug offences should be approached in the lead-up to legalization.

Urquhart suggested chiefs of police should decide where their officers are best used, and that's where provincial and municipal dollars for policing should flow.

But he also said small marijuana cases would tie up the courts and cost a lot of money to prosecute.

"I don't think the rank-and-file police officer should be told if you come onto it, you ignore it," he said. "It is still illegal.

"But the revenues from municipalities and the revenues from the province and so on should not be targeted in an organized group or an organized section just to target that."

Randall Leavitt with the People's Alliance Party agreed small possession cases shouldn't be pursued, but said the issue should not be left to an officer's discretion.

"I find that a little sketchy," he said. "It opens up the lawsuits, it opens up to acquittals and challenges and it's just going to continue to tie up our court system."

Debate on legal age

Leavitt added more research is needed into what age is appropriate for the legal consumption of marijuana, taking into consideration the effects of the drug on the brain development in young people and general health.

He said his party is leaning towards supporting 21 as the legal age for safe consumption.

"We would rather have people not suffer any brain detriments," he said.

MacLean and Coon said they would keep the legal age at 19, the same as for alcohol.

Coon also stressed the need for public education about marijuana and potential health effects.

The government should also focus on how it will regulate edible pot products," he said, suggesting those products might lead to consumption earlier in a person's life.

Urquhart suggested the legal age of consumption should be 18 since that's also "your voting age, it's the age that you can fight for your country."

Private sector vs. government 

Urquhart, Coon and MacLean agreed the sale of marijuana should fall to NB Liquor, while Leavitt argued it should be privatized.

Private enterprise can react to the market a lot better, he said.

"It also helps to keep the government a little more honest," he said. "We can specifically see how much is being brought in, and how much is siphoned off."

He added that privatizing marijuana sales could open up a market for people who now sell it illegally.

"It's obviously something they are experts in," he said.

Health Minister Victor Boudreau was unable to attend the panel this week. Following the debate, CBC also contacted Justice and Public Safety for comment but received no response.