In anticipation of the federal government’s plan to legalize marijuana next summer, an event titled “Legalizing Marijuana: How to Get it Right?” was hosted on November 14 to discuss important issues surrounding legalization, including how to educate consumers and how to deal with large increases in demand. The event was organized by the U of T Political Science Alumni Association and took place at St. Michael’s College.

The panel, moderated by CBC News reporter Jacqueline Hansen, featured Bill Blair, current MP and former Toronto Police Chief; the Honourable Yasir Naqvi, Attorney General of Ontario; Michael Lickver, Executive Vice President of marijuana financing company Cannabis Wheaton; and Dr. Kwame McKenzie, CEO of Wellesley Institute, an urban health think tank.

Canada’s plan to legalize marijuana states that the federal government will be in charge of monitoring the quality of cannabis, while the provinces and territories will decide how it’s sold, at what price, and the age limit. Ontario is proposing to sell marijuana in 150 stand-alone stores managed by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario while imposing an age limit of 19.

Speaking on the age limit, Naqvi emphasized that there would be no criminal record for underage youths caught breaking the law. Rather, the focus of the restriction is on “prevention and education… We want to make sure that we work with young people and convince them not to use the product.”

On the subject of education, McKenzie stressed that we still have a long way to go in terms of learning about the effects of marijuana.

“Can you take cannabis and then go work in a daycare? How much cannabis can you take before you go work on that building site? I’m not completely sure that we’re sure of the answers. There are some big issues out there that we need to know more about.”

“This isn’t a problem created by legalization,” argued Blair in response. “We’re not proposing to merely legalize. We’re lifting a prohibition… [and] you’re going to see a very significant public education campaign,” he added.

Lickver, speaking from an industry perspective, said that despite the government’s efforts, it is going to be “insanely difficult” to educate the public on the difference between black market cannabis and government-licensed cannabis due to the heavy restrictions on advertising.

According to Lickver, the government’s emphasis on establishing brick-and-mortar stores will also make it harder to promote legal cannabis, which he says will pose a convenience problem. “If I’m a consumer — and that doesn’t have to be hypothetical — I don’t want to go to a government-run store if it’s going to be less convenient for me than the guy who lives at the end of my hallway that I’ve been grabbing from for the past 20 years… Eventually we have to reach the UberEATS of cannabis”

According to Lickver, legalization could result in millions of new customers, thus greatly increasing the demand for cannabis.

“It’s really just a race now in terms of a land grab to ramp up production to ensure that there aren’t World War II era bread lines going down the street when these CCBO stores first open.”

According to McKenzie, emphasis on physical stores would make it difficult for marginalized populations to access legal cannabis. “My worry is that the lack of reach and distribution could lead to the criminalization of marginalized populations,” he said.

McKenzie further suggested that a solution to this problem could be using the extensive, albeit illegal, network of marijuana dispensaries that already exist. In response to this, Naqvi stated that “governments don’t work with illegal industries.”

“If you’re going to do it, you have to start somewhere. And you’ll never have perfection on day one…Yes, the timeline has been tight, but where there’s a will there’s a way.”

The federal government plans to legalize marijuana by July 2018.