OTTAWA - The federal government has tailored its highly anticipated marijuana legislation to ensure younger teens don't wind up with criminal records for pot possession.
Currently, people between 12 and 17 can be charged for having any amount of marijuana, but the newly tabled legislation proposes that people under age 18 would not face criminal prosecution for possessing or sharing up to five grams.
Bill Blair, a Liberal MP working with federal ministers on the legislation, said Monday the ultimate goal is to give provinces and territories flexibility to prohibit young people from possessing any amount of cannabis, with the option to introduce non-criminal sanctions for having a small amount.
"There are far better ways to deal with those offences that don't result in a criminal record, which are quite frankly more straightforward to enforce, less onerous to enforce, less costly to enforce but also achieve a much better social outcome by not giving those kids a criminal record," he said.
Provinces could bring in a regulatory ticketing system — much like the one in Ontario for those under 19 caught purchasing, possessing or drinking alcohol, he noted.
This requires "basic regulation" for the provinces, said Blair, a former Toronto police chief.
"I'm not minimizing the amount of work that needs to be done," he said. "This is pretty straightforward . . . I've enforced those laws for 40 years so I'm familiar with how they work."
He also challenged the suggestion responsibilities have been downloaded on the provinces.
"Actually, we want to make sure the rules and regulations that are put in place, in order to be effective, in order to achieve what it is we want to achieve, they've got to be at the right level of governance."
The possession changes are among the many issues Ottawa and the provinces and territories need to iron out before marijuana is legalized next year including distribution, licensing and retail sales.
Toronto-based criminal lawyer Daniel Brown said Monday courts generally don't prosecute minor marijuana possession charges for people under or over 18, noting these cases are often dealt through a diversion program designed to steer them out of the court system.
"Normally, what it takes is someone to do some community service or in some instances they will make a donation to charity in order to secure a withdrawal of their charges," Brown said.
The problem is this approach still requires resources to bring these people into the court system, whether they are young offenders or adults facing minor marijuana charges.
"By making it not a criminal act, they are going to ensure the resources that are otherwise spent dealing with these individuals in the court system can be better used elsewhere, especially given there are so many cases in the court system that are in jeopardy of being throw out due to delay," he said.
NDP justice critic Alistair MacGregor said Monday he very much agrees that criminal sanctions for marijuana possession can have detrimental impacts, particularly for young people, but he expressed frustration about why government did not address the problem sooner.
"It is going to take another 18 months to bring it into effect," MacGregor said. "These are provisions that could have been brought in as an interim measure long ago. ... The federal government had the ability to act."
—Follow @kkirkup on Twitter