The road to legalization in Canada: Q&A with Anne McLellan, chair of rec marijuana task force

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tapped Anne McLellan last year to head the country’s marijuana legalization task force.

McLellan – whose task force issued its report in December – is confident the government will meet its July 2018 target date for the recreational program’s launch. But she knows potential pitfalls abound.

A potential supply shortage, for example, could hamper the rollout of the recreational program. And provincial governments may balk at some aspects of legalization.

Marijuana Business Daily spoke with McLellan – a former deputy prime minister and Liberal Party Public Safety Minister – to get her thoughts about the road to legalization.

There are concerns about whether there will be enough supply when legalization launches next summer, and how that would affect efforts to fight the black market. Are those concerns warranted?

Any sensible person would be concerned about, when legalization happens, whether there will be sufficient supply to meet demand. I have no doubt the government is very aware of the challenges around supply and demand, especially at the very beginning, and that they will focus among other things on how to ensure there is reasonable access to reasonable supply.

One of the avowed purposes of legalization and regulation – as stated by the government of Canada – was to get criminal organizations out of the cannabis sector. If that’s one of your major considerations then you will be focused on supply and demand when legalization is a reality.

Some people have criticized the report’s recommendation to give licensed medical marijuana producers a head start in the adult-use program, saying it gives an advantage to “big marijuana.” Is that a fair criticism?

Those people who are already in this space on the medical side and who want to produce product for the adult market, they’re thinking about that and by definition will have a first-mover advantage. They’re looking at expansion, and that’s how the marketplace works.

And people shouldn’t just accept this expression “big cannabis,” because most of the licensed producers aren’t big. There are a few who are, they’re publicly traded, and they attract a lot of attention from the market, which is perfectly fine. But you’ve also got licensed producers who are two or three people growing a few hundred plants. That’s not big cannabis.

What about the possibility of U.S. or other non-Canadian citizens participating in the market?

We have U.S. investors in licensed producers in Canada now, but the companies are registered businesses in Canada. Some of the money may come from San Francisco or New York City, but the companies are Canada-based. Money flows into your country and mine from all over the world every day. You want to make sure it’s not money that’s being laundered or coming from illegal markets.

How do you make that happen?

Everybody has to be working really hard and working together – listening to each other, understanding what resources, human and financial, are going to be required. It will require a higher degree of collaboration and cooperation than what we sometimes see in our country among the three levels of government. We heard from the provinces that the federal government can’t dump this on us, that they have to work with us.

Will the government be ready to launch this by the July 1, 2018, target date they have set?

I have no reason to believe they will not meet that date. But it puts a lot of pressure on the other orders of government.

Every day I get up and ask what has changed in this space today. That’s how quickly it’s evolving.

What’s your view on how the legal adult-use markets are doing in Colorado and Washington? 

They’re evolving markets. I look at all the baseline data that Colorado is collecting, and we have an awful lot to learn about what this adult recreational market will look like. Who will use marijuana in terms of gender, ethnicity, age?

All sorts of data has to be collected in the names of public health and public safety to understand what’s happening in the adult recreational market, and where some of these social problems are showing up, and how we deal with those problems. It’s a brand-new market, and we don’t have baseline data and it takes more than a couple years of data to establish which baseline.

We can learn from Colorado and Washington and others that we have to establish our own baseline in this market.

How well have those U.S. states done in terms of safety and reducing the black market?

It’s too soon to say. Colorado learned some lessons out of the box in terms of edibles, such as edibles not being labeled appropriately early on and falling into the hands of kids. We’re learning from all those things.

Do people from the federal government ask you questions about the report or seek your advice?

They have. It hasn’t been often. And those were private discussions. But once or twice people in government have asked us to have a bit of a discussion with them around why we made a certain recommendation. But the report stands on its own.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Omar Sacirbey can be reached at