In 2016, on a mandate from the Canadian Government, the Task Force assessed public opinion, which would later influence the Cannabis Act 2018.
Problems and Purpose
Between June and November 2016, on a mandate from the Liberal Government of Canada, the Task Force on Marijuana Legalization and Regulation assessed public attitudes on how recreational marijuana would be regulated. Public opinion was later aggregated and submitted as a report which informed the Cannabis Act 2018.
Background History and Context
Following the victory of the Liberal Party in the 2015 Federal Election, Justin Trudeau became Prime Minister of Canada, and set out enacting a campaign promise to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. The Liberal manifesto argued that current legislation did not prevent underage use; that too many citizens obtained criminal records for small amounts of possession- costly to the justice system; whilst revenue to drug gangs fueled harder drug use and thus threats to public safety. Prior government strategy had focused intensively on drug prevention and punishment. The Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (1996) established prison sentences dependent on where the drug fell in a category of four schedules, with a maximum seven years imprisonment and fines dependent on the number of offences. Although medical marijuana was legalized in 2001, the Conservative government, led by Stephen Harper, which immediately preceded Trudeau’s own, sought to strengthen anti-drug legislation. Bill C-10 increased penalties, allowing, in some cases, for life imprisonment, with a focus on gang culture, particularly if individuals had operated in a public place frequented by those under 18. By 2016, public opinion had shifted, with seven in ten Canadians supporting legalization of recreational use.
Internationally, movement has shifted toward either legalization or decriminalization: Uruguay became the first country to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes in 2013 (and was consulted by the Task Force on Uruguayan regulations), and following the November 2016 US elections, eight states had legalized recreational use. In Canada’s context, cannabis possession constituted the largest single issue of youth crime: in 2014, 23.5% of police-related youth incidents during school hours, were attributed to cannabis possession- an issue the Liberals campaigned on targeting.
In 2015, the Canadian Government released a Discussion Paper entitled: 'Toward the Legalization, Regulation and Restriction of Access to Marijuana'. The paper established the Task Force on Marijuana Legalization and Regulation, who were instructed to engage with the populous, gather opinions, and report to the Government in November 2016. The Task Force’s report, ‘A Framework for the Legalization and Regulation of Cannabis in Canada’, informed government policy on regulating recreational marijuana.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The Task Force consisted of nine experts, chaired by the Honorable Anne McLellan- a former liberal deputy prime minister - and Dr. Mark Ware, who had advised the government on medical marijuana since 2001. The board also held experts on civic politics, policing and public health. The Task Force as an entity was not a unique form of investigating public opinion: the Government of Canada website reveals task forces on topics from coal transition to diversity and inclusion. Each task force is led by experts to assess public opinion, and garner advice, to proposed government policies, with the Liberals utilizing this method to promote wider participation in politics.
The Government funded the Task Force with McLellan noting, ‘[W]e had a secretariat in the Department of Health of 22 people’, who supported the work of the task force, though the overall cost is unclear. The 2016-2017 budget does not reveal a figure, and no mention occurred in the government press release announcing the creation of the Task Force. Additionally, ‘Statistics Canada’ were contacted, yet admitted they had no data on such.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The selection process was dichotomous: for participants of the online portal and written submissions, no selection process was established, instead participation was open to all. Conversely, participants of the roundtable conferences were invited by the Task Force on the basis of representing their sector/demographic. Unfortunately, there are no details on the selection process taken on the Government of Canada’s website.
Participants were engaged through an online portal which garnered 28,880 individual and organizational responses. Of the participants, forty-one percent lived in Ontario, thirty-five percent were between the ages of twenty six and thirty four, seventy-three percent were male, and ninety-eight percent spoke English as their primary language, not representative of census data. Furthermore, forty-nine percent of participants identified as users of non-medical marijuana, whilst an additional thirty percent identified as medical marijuana users, resulting in 22,815 of online participants being marijuana users.
To ensure the consultation held a wide scope, the Task Force also met with provincial government officials, accepted nearly 300 written submissions and chaired roundtable discussions with researchers and academics. Beyond including experts in academic roundtables to provide empirical feedback, it is unclear whether academics were utilized to provide information to other participants during the consultation. Additionally, a roundtable with youth representatives, and another with representatives from indigenous peoples, comprising the First Nation, Inuit and Metis communities, were also held.
In the online portal, 265 non-governmental organizations participated, the largest single sector being the health industry at 70 responses. A multitude of organizations engaged, ranging from distributors to law enforcement agencies: another form of expert involvement. As well as reaching out to specific communities and organizations, the Task Force accepted reports from external organizations, like the Canadian Public Health Association. All feedback from the varying outlets was aggregated in the final report.
No evidence can be found of the federal government promoting the task force: no information on dates/locations for consultation meetings feature on news releases on the Canadian Government website throughout the five month consultation period. Additionally, bar coverage on the announcement of the Task Force, media interest throughout the consultation was virtually non-existent.
Methods and Tools Used
The Task Force is a common form of investigating public opinion used by the Government of Canada. Each task force is led by experts to assess public opinion, and garner advice, to proposed government policies, with the Liberals utilizing this method to promote wider participation in politics.
The Task Force used a variety of participatory channels to gather public opinion including
- an online portal
- written submissions
- roundtable discussions
- stakeholder engagement (one-to-one meetings with organizations, sourcing of submissions or reports)
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The Task Force served as the monitoring body during the consultation process, chairing the meetings with participants, experts, and business leaders alike, and holding non-decision making power in determining the topics discussed, both in roundtables and the online portal. Deliberation was divided between five themes, each in correlation to the Discussion Paper and the regulations which would be needed to foster a competitive, yet safe, legal market. Themes discussed were: Minimizing Harms of Use, Establishing a Safe and Responsible Supply Chain, Enforcing Public Safety and Protection, Medical Access, and Implementation . The task force took note of the opinions expressed and aggregated the most vocalized, thus expression through majority verdict. No mention of information dispersed to participants, if any, can be found on Health Canada or other government websites.
Non-governmental organizations also held deliberations, with the Task Force noting the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP) as ‘a direct contribution to the Task Force's youth engagement activities’. The CSSDP held a consultation in which twenty-one youth of the ages 18-29 participated in group discussions, aided with handouts summarizing the Government’s Discussion Paper, the agenda, and topics of discussion, initially deliberating in smaller groups before discussing with all participants. The CSSDP served as monitoring body, utilizing experts to provide empirical evidence and surmise available options.
The Task Force ultimately served as a liaison between the Canadian public and the Government: feedback and progress were therefore released with the final report in December 2016.
Influence, Outcomes and Effects
The Cannabis Act, which was influenced by the Task Force, legalized recreational marijuana from 17 October 2018- a success for both government and task force in implementing their desired outcome.
The Cannabis Act legislated the regulations for recreational marijuana, with chair of the Task Force, McLellan, noting ‘[T]he government has largely adopted our report and our recommendations’, demonstrating external influence of the consultation. The Task Force recommended the government establish 18 as the minimum age, with autonomy for provinces to raise the age; the Cannabis Act subsequently enforced that ‘it is prohibited…to distribute cannabis to an individual who is under 18’. Simultaneously, on personal cultivation, the Task Force argued a maximum of four plants per residence, and measures to protect against dangerous manufacturing processes after a number of participants raised concerns of explosions. The government once again listened, establishing four plants as the limit, and ensuring the federal government oversees ‘good production practices’. McLellan, however, did express the disappointment of the Task Force that edibles would be illegal until one year after legalization, though conceded ’I think that’s fine as long as we see edibles regulated and available in the near future.’ The feedback from individual participants of the consultation is unknown, with the Task Force dissolving following the submission of the report.
The regulations are in alignment with the Liberal’s 2015 commitments, with a litany of measures to ensure youth cannot gain access to marijuana, including restrictions on the visibility of marijuana products. Concerns did arise in Parliament from Conservative senators on home cultivation and proximity to children. In response, the Government committed $46 million to inform the populace on ‘health and safety risks of cannabis consumption.’
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The Task Force did successfully convey opinions to the Canadian Government which are clearly represented in legislation, however, some criticisms are valid. Firstly, there is a danger that the demographics of participants are not reflective of the general Canadian population, thus lending a bias to the feedback. A statistical analysis of those who participated in the online portal reveals a bias toward those in Ontario, males, those who are aged 26 to 34, those with a higher education, and those whose primary language is English. Furthermore, eighty-nine percent of individuals in the online portal identified as marijuana users, lending a huge bias to those already in favor of legalization. The Task Force may therefore have underrepresented ordinary members of the public who are not as motivated as their pro-recreational peers, yet still hold strong views. Potential statistical biases could be alleviated by the use of quotas, or ‘deliberative microcosm’ as advocated by James Fishkin and his Deliberative Poll. In future consultations, the Canadian Government could adopt quotas to ensure deliberations take the form of a mini-public and ensure a full diversity of opinions are realized.
In addition, the agenda-setting bias of the Task Force meant that deliberations were structured along thematic and single issue lines, thus participants may have been restricted in deviating from discussion to inform of their own concerns. To improve, future consultations could either establish a set time for additional comments, or seek participant feedback before the consultation on topics to be discussed. Furthermore, the transmission of information also had its flaws: the nine Task Force members were expected to collect all opinions, summarize and condense, before sending recommendations to the government. Inevitably, some opinions were overlooked or surpassed by majority consensus. Improving this issue is difficult as in the age of multi-level governance, individual opinions are difficult to note unless aggregated into a large form, i.e. the Task Force. This may demonstrate a wider issue for the inability of government institutions to respond effectively to all democratic feedback, and reinforces the need to devolve decision-making power to the local level, to emancipate individuals and ensure effective governance.
Finally, the limited visibility of the Task Force during the consultation period enforces notions of exclusivity in ensuring only the politically engaged will participate. The aforementioned demographic datum reinforces this concern. Additionally, the format of the consultation may also have promoted exclusion: the primary use of the online portal for citizen feedback excludes those without the technological means to participate, and those in rural areas with limited connectivity. Whilst written submissions were also accepted, primarily this was for business representatives with detailed concerns; furthermore, the disparity between online and written responses indicates a preferred mode of communication, one unavailable to all. The relative silence of the media during the consultation period itself also exacerbated exclusivity, as only the politically engaged would be aware of the process. In future consultations, the government must promote participatory means though innovative mediums: for example, banners or posters could be erected in public areas like parks and shopping centers to encourage participation with those typically neglected by the political process.
Conclusively, the Task Force did manage to engage members of the public, and the government largely accepted these recommendations, indicating responsive institutions. Future consultations should ensure diverse participation, promote deliberation dates to those beyond the political sphere, and allow for greater participant control over the process.
Notice and Request for Public Comment
 Government of Canada, ‘Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, 1996’, p.13. https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/PDF/C-38.8.pdf [Accessed 12 November 2018].
 Parliament of Canada, ‘Bill C-10’, Section 39, (2012), https://www.parl.ca/DocumentViewer/en/41-1/bill/C-10/royal-assent/page-65#12 [Accessed 12 November 2018].
 Jesse Tahirali, ‘7 in 10 Canadians support marijuana legalization: Nanos poll’, CTV News (2016), https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/7-in-10-canadians-support-marijuana-legalization-nanos-poll-1.2968953 [Accessed 6 November 2018].
 Mary K. Allen, Tamy Superle, ‘Youth Crime in Canada, 2014’, Statistics Canada, Chart 8 < https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2016001/article/14309-eng.htm > [Accessed 15 November 2018].
 Government of Canada, ‘Task Force on Marijuana Legalization and Regulation, ‘A Framework for the Legalization and Regulation of Cannabis in Canada: The Final Report of the Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation’, (2016). https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/drugs-medication/cannabis/laws-regulations/task-force-cannabis-legalization-regulation/framework-legalization-regulation-cannabis-in-canada.html [Accessed 2 November 2018].
 IBID, Annex One.
 Civilized, ‘Task Force Chair Anne McLellan: 'Expect Surprises' When Canada Legalizes Marijuana’, (April 17 2018), https://www.civilized.life/articles/task-force-chair-anne-mclellan-expect-surprises-when-canada-legalizes-marijuana/ [Accessed 26 November 2018].
 IBID, ‘Annex Five’.
 IBID, ‘Annex Five’.
 IBID, ‘Executive Summary’.
 IBID, ‘Engagement Process’.
 Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy ‘Youth Speak: Cannabis Policy in the 21st Century’ 7 September 2016, p.4. < https://cssdp.org/uploads/2016/09/Youth-Speak-Report-2016.pdf > [Accessed 15 November 2018].
 Civilized, op. cit.
 Government of Canada, Department of Justice, ‘Cannabis Legalization and Regulation’, ‘Protecting Public Health: Strict Regulation’, https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/cj-jp/cannabis/ [Accessed 27 November 2018].
 Civilized, op. cit.
 Government of Canada, ‘Legalizing and strictly regulating cannabis: the facts’, ‘Restricted access: Protecting youth’, https://www.canada.ca/en/services/health/campaigns/legalizing-strictly-regulating-cannabis-facts.html [Accessed 28 November 2018].
 Matt Ryan, G. Smith, ‘Defining mini-publics’, in ‘Deliberative Mini-publics: Involving Citizens in the Democratic Process’, ed. Kimmo Gronlund, Andre Bachtiger, Maija Setala (2014), p.16. https://contentstore.cla.co.uk/secure/link?id=f58b0a7e-f6a4-e711-80cb-005056af4099 [Accessed 30 November].
Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy ‘Youth Speak: Cannabis Policy in the 21st Century’ 7 September 2016. < https://cssdp.org/uploads/2016/09/Youth-Speak-Report-2016.pdf > [Accessed 15 November 2018].
‘Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, 1996’, https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/C-38.8/page-1.html
The Final Report of the Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation’, 2016. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/drugs-medication/cannabis/laws-regulations/task-force-cannabis-legalization-regulation/framework-legalization-regulation-cannabis-in-canada.html
Government of Canada, Cannabis Act 2018. https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/PDF/C-24.5.pdf
Government of Canada, Department of Justice, ‘Cannabis Legalization and Regulation’ https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/cj-jp/cannabis/
Lead image: Government of Canada, https://goo.gl/aUZv5T