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The idea that Bill Blair was ever an un­der­cover cop in the Toronto Po­lice Ser­vices drug unit does not speak well to the in­tel­li­gence of the city’s felons.

He stands erect as a grenadier at 6-foot-4 and might as well have: “Keep Calm, I’m a Po­lice Of­fi­cer” etched on his fore­head.

He main­tains it mat­tered more what you said than what you looked like, and that not all un­der­cover of­fi­cers are short guys with beards.

But even though he’s now a Lib­eral MP, he still talks like he’s a cop. “Ev­ery New Year’s Eve for 20 years, I’d say good­bye to my wife and go and do ride spot checks with my guys,” he said in an in­ter­view in his Ottawa of­fice. The for­mer Toronto po­lice chief still con­sid­ers them “my guys.”

Blair is ar­guably the rea­son why this gov­ern­ment stands on the cusp of the his­toric le­gal­iza­tion of cannabis.

He is the par­lia­men­tary sec­re­tary to both the Min­is­ter of Jus­tice and the Min­is­ter of Health be­cause the leg­is­la­tion is so broad it cov­ers is­sues re­lat­ing to both min­istries.

Blair has had the dif­fi­cult task of find­ing the Goldilocks point where the new pot in­dus­try is suc­cess­ful enough to dis­place il­licit pro­duc­ers but not so suc­cess­ful that con­sump­tion rates sky­rocket.

“It’s not the gov­ern­ment’s intent to pro­mote the use of this drug,” he said.

Blair is open about his dis­taste for cannabis and the ef­fects on pub­lic health. “I don’t like it,” he said. He clar­i­fied in an email that he has never tried it.

“My fa­ther was a cop and I had a great re­spect for him. Didn’t want to let him down. Later when I be­came a cop, I was glad that I had made that choice be­cause I thought it would be pretty hyp­o­crit­i­cal to en­force a law I had bro­ken,” he wrote.

“I have ac­tu­ally never used any il­licit drug.”

Few peo­ple in this coun­try would have had the cred­i­bil­ity with in­dus­try stake­hold­ers and with the pub­lic to get the leg­is­la­tion to the verge of Royal Assent in such a rel­a­tively short space of time.

But Blair’s dis­taste for the drug has given him a trust­wor­thi­ness in many eyes that sim­ply would not have been granted to a more bo­hemian ca­reer politi­cian, with one eye on the tax rev­enues that will in­evitably ac­crue.

Blair’s im­pres­sions of the drug in­dus­try were formed on Toronto the Good’s less salu­bri­ous streets.

“Or­ga­nized crime will en­gage in what­ever en­ter­prise makes money for them and they’re quite will­ing to op­er­ate out­side the law. It’s not all mo­tor­cy­cle gangs and street gangs and mafia. But it’s all crim­i­nal en­ter­prises and there­fore un­reg­u­lated and not sub­ject to any rules,” he said. “There’s lots of dif­fer­ent ways to fight or­ga­nized crime and it’s not just en­force­ment. Some­times you have to out­flank them. We’ve now cre­ated com­pe­ti­tion in the mar­ket-place – they’ve never had com­pe­ti­tion be­fore.”

Or­ga­nized crime will en­gage in what­ever en­ter­prise makes money for them ... We’ve now cre­ated com­pe­ti­tion in the mar­ket­place – they’ve never had com­pe­ti­tion be­fore. Bill Blair

It was dur­ing his time as po­lice chief that Blair con­cluded that the blan­ket pro­hi­bi­tion on pot was “fail­ing on ev­ery front.”

“I thought my job wasn’t just to en­force the law but it was to keep com­mu­ni­ties safe. The rule of law is meant to act in the pub­lic in­ter­est but what we saw was pretty strong — a ridicu­lously high per­cent­age of our kids us­ing this drug but not be­ing sub­ject to any reg­u­la­tory con­trol or over­sight. And so chang­ing the law made sense to me,” he said.

“You don’t ar­rest your way out of these com­plex prob­lems.”

He favoured le­gal­iza­tion over de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion be­cause the lat­ter op­tion left pro­duc­tion in the hands of or­ga­nized crime.

“My ex­pe­ri­ence as a cop was to go into these crappy grow-ops, where the houses were cov­ered in mold and my guys had to wear white space suits; there were hy­dro by­passes, they were fire haz­ards, it was a mess,” he said.

“The houses were ren­dered com­pletely un­in­hab­it­able. We es­ti­mated there were close to 10,000 houses be­ing used that way in the GTA. I had two grow-op teams, they were do­ing about 350 a year and we were just touch­ing the edge. You close one and three more would pop up be­cause it was a lu­cra­tive busi­ness. The con­se­quences were not nearly suf­fi­cient to de­ter the profit. We were fight­ing a los­ing bat­tle.”

The turn­around came with the emer­gence of li­censed pro­duc­ers es­tab­lished to sup­ply med­i­cal mar­i­juana in 2013.

“Their fa­cil­i­ties were like phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal fac­to­ries, you could eat off the floor and the se­cu­rity was pen­i­ten­tiary-like to pre­vent di­ver­sion. You see that, and it shows there’s a way this can be done right. This is a bet­ter way,” Blair said.

But if the ex­ist­ing law hasn’t worked, there is no guar­an­tee that le­gal­iza­tion is go­ing to work ei­ther. For one thing, the black mar­ket is thriv­ing in Colorado, one of four U.S. states where pot is le­gal.

For an­other, no­to­ri­ously in­ef­fi­cient govern­ments, with rev­enue am­bi­tions and dis­tri­bu­tion chains staffed by high-priced union em­ploy­ees, are set to try to com­pete with foot­loose or­ga­nized crim­i­nals.

Blair is re­al­is­tic enough to know the black mar­ket will not melt away overnight. Four years af­ter le­gal­iza­tion in Colorado, le­gal pot now ac­counts for around 70 per cent of the mar­ket (al­though Blair points out much of the il­licit pot is bound for neigh­bour­ing states where it is still il­le­gal, a prob­lem that should be less pro­nounced in Canada).

On pric­ing, a Statis­tics Canada sur­vey ear­lier this year con­cluded the average price paid by Cana­di­ans for a gram of pot is $6.79 (rang­ing from $5.89 in Que­bec to $11.89 in N.W.T.).

Blair is con­fi­dent the le­gal prod­uct will be com­pet­i­tive.

“We have to com­pete, not just on price but on choice, qual­ity and ac­cess if we’re go­ing to help peo­ple make a le­git­i­mate choice. I said to the prov­inces and ter­ri­to­ries, ‘Don’t let the dol­lar signs daz­zle you. There are rev­enue im­pli­ca­tions, no doubt about it. But let’s stay fo­cused on keep­ing it out of the hands of kids and dis­plac­ing the il­licit mar­ket.’ ”

He said the tax­a­tion model set up by the gov­ern­ment at $1 per gram in ex­cise tax, plus sales tax, is lower than that im­posed by states like Colorado and Wash­ing­ton State.

And he pointed out that the economies of scale em­ployed by pro­duc­ers should keep the price down. Some pro­duc­ers are telling their share­hold­ers they can pro­duce for around 70¢ a gram, while Blair said the amount of space un­der cul­ti­va­tion has grown from two mil­lion square feet to 10 mil­lion square feet.

“What we are see­ing is that the cost of pro­duc­tion is drop­ping quite sig­nif­i­cantly,” he said.

But this is where the gov­ern­ment is in un­charted ter­ri­tory — try­ing to strike a price low enough to com­pete but not so low it en­cour­ages use.

As part of that ef­fort, the gov­ern­ment placed re­stric­tions on pack­ag­ing — the use of celebrity or sports spon­sor­ship was banned, as was im­agery that might ap­peal to chil­dren.

“These are rea­son­able re­stric­tions. We’ve learned from tobacco. Some of that has worked re­ally well — 20 years ago we had 22 per cent adult us­age of tobacco. We’re now down to 11 per cent and we’re aim­ing to get it down to 5 per cent in the next 12 years or so. Much of that has been achieved by plain pack­ag­ing and health warn­ing la­bels. The pack­ag­ing (on cannabis) will tell you very clearly the pu­rity and prove­nance. And there’ll be health warn­ings,” he said.

He said he thinks the gov­ern­ment has found the right bal­ance be­tween al­low­ing pro­duc­ers some brand iden­ti­fi­ca­tion on the pack­ag­ing, with­out cross­ing the thresh­old into prod­uct pro­mo­tion.

“It’s im­por­tant to start off cau­tiously and as we get some ex­pe­ri­ence with this new in­dus­try and sup­ply chain, we’ll con­tinue to eval­u­ate and mon­i­tor and see what works,” he said.

This is very much the ap­proach when it comes to ed­i­ble prod­ucts, which will re­main pro­hib­ited un­til the gov­ern­ment has a chance to gauge the im­pact of le­gal­iza­tion.

Blair said the gov­ern­ment will bring in reg­u­la­tions for pro­cessed prod­ucts within 12 months. All the in­di­ca­tions are that the gov­ern­ment is in favour of ed­i­bles, if the dosage and pack­ag­ing are clear.

“Smok­ing is prob­a­bly the least healthy way to do this. Philo­soph­i­cally, we’re on the side of the health­ier choice but there’s a lot of risk in ed­i­bles. If you’re go­ing to al­low them, you’ve got to reg­u­late them prop­erly so peo­ple know what they are con­sum­ing, what the dosage is,” he said. “Cannabis smoke me­tab­o­lizes dif­fer­ently than cannabis when it’s in­gested. You don’t want peo­ple hav­ing one bis­cuit and 30 min­utes later hav­ing an­other one be­cause the first hasn’t had any ef­fect, then 30 min­utes later tak­ing out the tray. Two hours later they’re not do­ing well at all.”

The other ma­jor hur­dle the le­gal­iza­tion process faces is the en­force­ment of im­paired driv­ing.

Blair points out that im­paired driv­ing by drugs has been an of­fence since 1925.

But he con­cedes that po­lice train­ing and ac­cess to tech­nol­ogy to en­force that law has been lim­ited.

The gov­ern­ment has in­jected funds into train­ing for po­lice to iden­tify drug im­paired driv­ers and has im­ported saliva test­ing tech­nol­ogy that is used in Aus­tralia and Eu­rope.

The tests are not in them­selves proof of im­pair­ment, but a failed test pro­vides grounds to make the de­mand to draw blood — the only ev­i­dence that would be ad­mis­si­ble in a case to pros­e­cute for ex­ceed­ing the limit.

“We’re try­ing to make sure po­lice have the train­ing, the tech­nol­ogy and the au­thor­ity they’re go­ing to need,” he said.

The le­gal­iza­tion of mar­i­juana is a sig­nif­i­cant mod­u­la­tion in the life of this coun­try.

It is tes­ti­mony to Blair’s steady hand that there has been a re­mark­able de­gree of con­sen­sus. Pri­vately, many Con­ser­va­tives con­cede it is time to try some­thing new.

But that’s what hap­pens when — re­gard­less of what year it is — prime min­is­ters ap­point peo­ple with life ex­pe­ri­ence to run del­i­cate files.

Blair has seen this movie be­fore — when he was a Toronto cop in the 1980s, ev­ery di­vi­sion had a gam­ing unit, crack­ing down on il­le­gal gam­bling dens. As the strict gam­bling laws were lib­er­al­ized to al­low prov­inces to run lot­ter­ies, video slot ma­chines and casi­nos, or­ga­nized crime moved on to more lu­cra­tive pur­suits and the gam­ing units were dis­banded.

His bet is that the same will hap­pen with il­licit pot.



Lib­eral MP Bill Blair has seen the dark side of il­licit drug pro­duc­tion. ‘It was a mess.’

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