Strict penalties on selling pot to youth won't change, says justice minister

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould announces changes regarding the legalization of marijuana during a news conference in Ottawa

The government’s goal of keeping youth from using marijuana justifies proposed prison sentences in its new pot legalization bill that have been criticized as too harsh, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould told journalist Evan Solomon during a CTV Question Period interview that aired Sunday.

Bill C-45 was introduced in Parliament on Thursday along with C-46, a related bill that will amend impaired driving laws, and several points of the proposed legislation are already controversial. One of those is a prison sentence of up to 14 years for providing cannabis to youth, defined as someone aged 17 and younger—a penalty much more severe than comparable ones for providing a minor with alcohol. There is no mandatory minimum sentence proposed in the bill.

Keeping young Canadians from cannabis, even once the drug is legalized for adult use, is key for the government, Wilson-Raybould said.

“I am not going to apologise for the strict penalties that we’ve put in place in this legislation,” Wilson-Raybould said.

In the same interview, Health Minister Jane Philpott said that legalization doesn’t mean the government is normalizing pot use.

“One of the reasons we are introducing this legislation and have a strict regulatory regime is because we know that young people in Canada are the highest users of cannabis in the world,” Philpott said.

The public-health focus the government is taking in legalization could bring down use over time, Philpott said—as it has, for example, with tobacco. “Legalizing a product does not, in any way, mean that we endorse or promote its use,” she said.

At the same time, some have said the government’s federal minimum age of 18 for legal cannabis consumption, as proposed by C-45, is several years too low.

Ottawa’s public health agency recommended a minimum age of 25 for legal marijuana use when its submission was sent to the federal task force looking at legalization, citing evidence that marijuana use could have detrimental effects on brain development.

And the Canadian Psychiatrists Association said last week that marijuana legalization could jeopardize the mental health of young Canadians if legal age limits—which they’d like to see set at 21, with potency limits for users under 25—are not strictly enforced.

Provinces will have the option to set a legal age for marijuana use higher than 18 if they so choose, and as many have already done for alcohol consumption. Canadians aged 18-34 are more likely than average to support marijuana legalization with 73 per cent saying they support the government’s plan to make pot legal versus 61 per cent overall, according to an Ipsos/Global News poll.

But almost half the Ipsos respondents believe the minimum age for legal pot use should be set at 21, with 18 per cent supporting an age minimum of 19 and 23 per cent the government’s minimum of 18.

Even with strong restrictions on legal marijuana use, and high penalties for providing the drug to youth, there’s no guarantee young Canadians stop using pot, Liberal MP Bill Blair said Thursday at a news conference.

“Today, the decision to sell or not sell to that child is often being made by a gangster in a stairwell,” said Blair, who has been highly involved in the plan to legalize marijuana in Canada. “That is completely unacceptable to us and that will be subject to serious criminal sanction.”