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Peter MacKay clarifies stance on cannabis legalization (and more)

It seems Peter MacKay isn’t quite sure what he thinks of Canada’s new weed laws, but he knows he’s not happy about them.

On Feb. 8, the Conservative leadership candidate strongly denounced the current administration's approach to the federal legalization of adult-use cannabis. Last night (Feb. 25), in an interview with CBC, however, he addressed concern that stemmed from his initial statement, clarifying he wouldn’t repeal the policy, if elected. But Stephen Harper’s former justice minister made it known he still takes issue with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s current plan around the plant’s regulation.

"No, I would not reverse it, but I am very concerned about the impacts on mental health, on children, and mental health generally, impaired driving and other of the unintended consequences," MacKay told host Vassy Kapelos on CBC’s Power & Politics.

“And the black market, of course, has flourished, but I’m not for repealing the legislation.”

The initial statement happened during an interview published in an Okanagan publication, the Daily Courier, in which MacKay was asked by editor James Miller if he “agreed with the legalization of cannabis.”

MacKay responded, “I don't. It should have been decriminalized and that's where our government was heading on the advice of the Canadian Police Association and chiefs of police.” He reiterated his initial concerns about the impact of the new laws on youth, mental health, and impaired driving.

To be clear, Harper’s government never directly indicated any intention to decriminalize cannabis possession and consumption. In fact, in 2011 the former prime minister said his administration would “never agree to the decriminalization” of cannabis, and in 2015, called it “infinitely worse” than tobacco.

“It was forced. The entire issue was rushed,” MacKay added. “I believe it wasn't the highest priority for an incoming government. It was the back-of-a-napkin promise that the current prime minister had made. I believe we have jumped the shark on that issue.” (An idiom which means something has passed the height of its popularity and is declining in quality. Did he mean “jump the gun”?)

He reiterated a need for a harder focus on the eradication of more harmful drugs, like fentanyl, and said current attempts to thwart the illicit market have been a “complete failure.”

During his stead as justice minister, MacKay lobbied for tougher penalties for transportation-related offences. His bill proposed an increase to the mandatory minimum sentence to a $1,000 fine and potentially six years in prison for drunk drivers causing death. His approach to drug policy, however, remained prohibitionist, and never indicated interest in decriminalizing cannabis as a means to decreasing the number of impaired motor incidents nor youth exposure.

Current research has yet to unpack a clear relationship between cannabinoids and psychological conditions, however, there is evidence to suggest tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) can aggravate underlying conditions, such as psychosis and schizophrenia.

MacKay was correct, however, in the assessment of the current illicit market, despite an increasing number of Canadians shopping from legal channels. The underground economy flourished during prohibition, and many believe it will only be disrupted by increased access, including lower price points for higher quality products on legal dispensary shelves.

The leadership candidate has been an outspoken opponent of Trudeau’s approach to drug policy since 2013, going so far as to wag a finger at the then-Liberal party leader’s engagement of youth in a policy conversation around cannabis consumption. “His plan to make marijuana available like alcohol and cigarettes available is bad policy, but this crosses the line. Promoting his plan to children is completely unacceptable and grossly inappropriate,” he wrote in a fundraising letter.

This opinion contradicts emerging literature and research that suggests the meaningful inclusion of youth in the legalization discussion highlights a need for more education and “prioritizes the development of youth’s ‘cannabis literacy’ by including evidence-based assessments of risk, and harm reduction principles.”

MacKay is one of several leadership hopefuls looking to replace the party’s outgoing leader, Andrew Scheer (who announced his resignation in December), and he used the interview as an opportunity to touch on several pertinent issues facing action across the country.

He said he’d repeal the approval of Chinese telecom corporation Huawei, if given the go-ahead to participate in Canada's 5G network, on the basis of “their pernicious activity and spying on Canada and stealing intellectual property.”

He also described the current country-wide rail blockages (several recently popping up in Ontario, New Brunswick, and B.C.) as criminal disruptions, calling for the “peaceful” removal of protestors. While he clarified the government doesn’t direct police decisions, and doesn’t agree with fellow leadership candidate Marilyn Gladu’s suggestion of engaging the military, he does believe Trudeau could be stronger in voicing approval for hands-on authoritative action in clearing the protests.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” said MacKay. “The urgency is to get commodities moving and the urgency is to avoid any further delay in making these passages clear. It has to happen.”

MacKay also made his stance on abortion clear, stating that although he doesn’t oppose a woman’s right to legal and safe terminations, he’d allow a member to introduce a bill to ban them. But he’d vote against it.

This article is available under a Canadian Creative Commons licence.