WHY BILL BLAIR IS THE PERFECT POINTMAN FOR POT POLICY.
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.’