Toronto's former top cop, once vilified for his handling of the crackdown on protesters during the G20 summit in the city in 2010, has been chosen to carry out the Liberal government's plan to legalize marijuana for recreational use.
"There's a great deal of work to do," Bill Blair told the Toronto Sun on Friday, when news of his role broke. "This will be a highly consultative process." Blair served as Toronto's chief of police until he retired last year, and now sits as a Liberal MP for Scarborough Southwest district, and a parliamentary secretary for the federal justice minister.
"If our intention is to manage the risks, keep it out of the hands of our kids, and get organized crime out of it, then we need to regulate it," Blair added. "Clearly, criminal sanction is not keeping it out of the hands of kids."
Blair is known for being in charge of the Toronto police during the G20 summit, when more than 1,100 people — both protesters and passersby — were detained in what is said to be the largest mass arrest in the country's history. Blair was also a vocal proponent of the force's controversial "carding" practice, where officers can question citizens without cause and record the interaction in a database. Black and brown males were most likely to be stopped, according to police stats. However, Blair has also been credited with diversifying the police force.
The new Liberal government has made it a top priority to "legalize, regulate, and restrict" access to marijuana, which is currently legal only for people with a valid medical prescription who must purchase it through one of the companies licensed by the federal health department.
Blair's newfound support for marijuana legalization is at odds with his former colleagues at the Canadian Associations of Chiefs of Police (CACP), of which he was president before he retired. The group does not support decriminalization or legalization, and advocated police officers have the option to issue tickets to people found with small amounts of marijuana.
"In his capacity, Parliamentary Secretary Blair will work closely with the three departments with shared responsibility for this file: Justice, Public Safety and Health," Andrew Gowing, a spokesperson for the department of justice, wrote to VICE News in an email. "The Minister of Justice and her colleagues are confident that Parliamentary Secretary Blair's experience and background in public safety will be a great asset to the government's work to ensure a careful and thoughtful approach to the legalization and regulation of marijuana."
News that Blair is in charge of the pot file has drawn criticism from many cannabis activists who are having a hard time reconciling his law enforcement background with legalization. They're also on edge because of ongoing federal police raids on dispensaries across the country and the lack of clarity on who will be allowed to grow and produce cannabis in the new recreational market.
"I worry that the police chief will have a prohibition-based bias because police have been against marijuana legalization for so long," Jodie Emery, long-time cannabis rights activist from Vancouver, told VICE News. "We encourage law enforcement to be against prohibition. I hope that they will bear in mind that many people have paid with their lives and their time, and have been arrested and gone to prison. People have lost their homes, their jobs, lost their children, their right to travel, all because of marijuana prohibition."
Craig Jones, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in Canada, told VICE News that while having a cop lead the charge wouldn't have been his first choice, he thinks Blair understands that a criminal record is "a much greater harm than cannabis use."
"He also knows the difference between the harm that arises from cannabis as a substance, versus the harms the come out of prohibition, such as a thriving black market. He has first-hand experience with that, and that's probably a good thing," Jones added. "This is a former tough cop with a reputation for being a hard-ass. And this is the guy who's going to lead us into a new regime. It's a bit of a 'Nixon goes to China' moment."
Jones said that his group will be calling on the justice department to halt all ongoing prosecutions for marijuana possession.
Jamie Shaw, president of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries said that while she is concerned the government could "overly restrict" the supply chain for legal weed, she's encouraged that Blair has supported the Canadian Association for Mental Health's position that marijuana should be legalized. "We definitely have our concerns about him, but if he and his team are making decisions based on real evidence, and in consultations with patients, then I don't think those things will be a big deal in the long run."
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