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EDITORIAL: Weed and legal limbo

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If you were a betting person, you’d have to think that the federal government (in the midst of planning the legalization of marijuana) and the provinces (who are expected to handle the sales of the plant) aren’t going to make next spring’s planned deadline.

There’s a distinct lack of clarity at this point about how a full-fledged marijuana sales and distribution apparatus is going to spring to life across the country in just 10 short months.

But that’s not the only place where we’re short a little clarity: with things in legal limbo, you have to wonder when police forces are going to simply stop raiding black market marijuana dispensaries.

Yes, the dispensaries are often either breaking the law, or skirting very, very close to it.

Yes, the current law forbidding the sale of marijuana is still in place. Even if the drug is legalized, it’s beginning to look like sales will be handled through provincially managed outlets, rather than through private dispensaries. That’s certainly the way that the Ontario government has signaled it’s going to go, setting up its own stand-alone outlets until the umbrella of the provincial liquor control board.

(There are clear advantages to that: more profit to provincial coffers, a better guarantee of product standards, and an already-in-place system to hopefully exclude minors from purchasing the product, just for a start.)

So, the dispensaries are in a spot: their product is illegal right now without a prescription, and will likely remain, at best, a bootleg product even after legalization. Where provincial governments legislate control of alcohol to their own Crown corporations, you don’t see any private liquor businesses operating on Main Street.

That being said, in province after province, police forces have staged raids on dispensaries when the sales get too obvious, too public, and frankly, too embarrassing for the police forces involved. Dispensaries that keep their heads down and their operations quiet don’t seem to generate the police interest — and trundle along, even though they are walked the same legal/illegal line as their fellows.

It’s made for an interesting mess — and, at the same time, a waste of money. Police forces spend time and resources raiding dispensaries, arresting staff, and preparing evidence for court. Prosecutors spend their time preparing for court, and courts use up valuable time as well, while at the same time, everyone is essentially going through the motions, prosecuting people for a crime that, within months, might not even be a crime.

It’s tough to see how this makes sense, either from the point of view of the criminal justice system or from those caught up in it. Is it fair to raid one public dispensary, but not all? Are there unwritten rules nascent dispensaries should follow?

Maybe there should be some interim guidance from the federal government.

Or better yet, some clear common sense.

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