Bill Blair, Member of Parliament, Scarborough Southwest
Articles Blog

Bill Blair, Member of Parliament, Scarborough Southwest

November 21, 2019

With your successful career in the
police force and working as an undercover officer in Toronto’s drug
squad, I imagine you’ve seen most of the implications the legal trade of
marijuana and other drugs had on the City of Toronto and its citizens. Over
the past few months there have been many illegal marijuana dispensaries opening
and getting shut down across the city, how are these illegal dispensaries able
to open up in plain sight of the public in the first place and what do you
believe is the perfect solution for dispensaries in the future when
marijuana is legalized? That is a really complicated question, but I’ll do
my best. First of all I want it really clear, marijuana clearly
has, since 1922 been a prohibited substance in this country. It was against
the law, I’ve been in the law enforcement business, but more importantly and I
want to begin by clarifying this, more importantly I’ve been in the public
safety business. It was my job to protect kids, keep neighbourhoods safe, maintain
order in communities, and to a large extent that involves reducing harm and
and frankly I’m going to talk a lot about harm reduction
approaches and public public health approaches because that’s what we’re
trying to undertake now. In all the years that I’ve been a police officer in
Toronto and the police chief, I never once had a young person die of a
marijuana overdose, but where I saw an enormous amount of harm was in some
of our communities where I went to far too many violent shooting
occurrences where young people had been shot to death in disputes over the
territory and the turf under which marijuana was being trafficked. And
so the harms associated to that drug had much to do with the way in which the
drug was was being produced, distributed and consumed and less in– there are risks in that drug and I’ll talk about some of those I’m sure in response
to some of your questions– but there was a lot of social harms related to
its production, distribution and consumption. Now when our government came in and the prime minister said, “if we’re elected we’re going to legalize, regulate and restrict the access to this drug”
and we articulated very clearly why we were doing it. We wanted to keep it out of
the hands of kids and we’ll talk about that more I’m sure because for young
people there’s real health and social risks to the use of this drug. We also
want to take the business away from organized crime because quite frankly
they don’t do an awful lot of good with that money and good can be done with it,
and we wanted to make sure that we protect the health of Canadians by
having a well-regulated, safe and inspected supply and regulations on
how and to whom it would be sold to keep it out of the hands of people who are
vulnerable and shouldn’t have it and also have some rules around its
consumption so that we could have healthier and socially responsible use. So
the legalization and the regulations, those are two very important concepts
that go together, frankly if all we were going to do is
legalize it, Ralph would be absolutely right, it would be a colossal blunder and we’d make a mess of this thing. So what we’re talking about is having a different
system of control, a smarter system of control, to reduce those social and
health harms. Now inevitably when you make a promise like that a lot of people
think it’s something that can be done like that. As I have discovered it’s enormously complex work to put the regulatory frameworks in place for
production, distribution and consumption. It takes time but not surprisingly there
are entrepreneurs who saw an opportunity to make money, a lot of money by the way,
and jumped into that market and so you asked why wouldn’t the police just go
and lock them all up, they’re clearly breaking the law? But the police have
limited resources and they try to respond to what people legitimately are
concerned about in their community and quite frankly the people of Toronto I’ll
tell you have greater concerns in many cases than the activities of the
dispensaries. Now they are concerned about the dispensaries and they’re
concerned about you know the unregulated sale of this drug and the unregulated
production of this drug, and so it is something the police have to deal with.
But in all the things that they have to deal with on a priority basis, it’s not
the highest priority. And therefore, the ones that were perhaps most blatant and
reckless in the way in which they were doing business got the attention of the
police and some of the others have not got that type of attention. As
chief of police you were never on record for supporting legalization of cannabis
and that you have considerable influence
in directing policy, do you feel that you have a conflict of interest with liberal
insiders who stand to gain significant financial benefit from the policies?
Excellent question, and I’m delighted for the opportunity–it is, it is, it’s a
comprehensive question. The information that you provided is interesting and
only partially accurate and therefore misleading. It’s kind of like what people used to say to me
“well this is in the newspaper”, and much of what you’ve just shared with us was
right out of the newspapers. Mark Twain once said that if you
don’t read the newspaper you’re uninformed, and if you do read the
newspaper you’re misinformed. I might suggest you’re partially misinformed and I
say that with great respect. I could actually give you a much longer
list of people who serve on various boards and have various applications
that are close to 2,500 applications currently before Health Canada, to obtain
a license for the production of cannabis. There are former conservative premiers
on those boards from several provinces, cabinet ministers, members of
Parliament, very prominent, well-known conservative members, and quite frankly
I’m not going to name them to you if you don’t mind because I impune
no misconduct on your part. It’s a legal process they’re involved in. The people
that you named, to the best of my knowledge, none of them yet have
have acquired a license from Health Canada. They are also in the queue in
making applications but they haven’t done it. Now there are as of
today 40 organizations that have received licenses. 36 of those received
them before my government came into power. The four that have received their
licenses, since we came into power, are very small producers and are none of
the groups to which you have just named, and so to suggest that anybody’s getting
a particular advantage because of their political affiliation, frankly is not
accurate. But having said that, what I have been very positive
about and I would encourage you if you get the opportunity, as a cop I used to have to deal with marijuana home growths, where whole
neighbourhoods, houses, factories would be given over to the illegal production of
cannabis. They were mold infested– my cops used to have to go in wearing like space
suits because of the health risk of going in there– the houses were
rendered personally uninhabitable, the proximity to other houses, to schools, to
kids represented a very significant health risk. There was hydro
bypasses and and fire risks, sometimes explosions because they would also do
aftermarket processing using explosive butane and blow things up. And so my
experience as a cop with cannabis production was always really negative
and then I went to a licensed producer, the regulations that control the
production of medical marijuana at a licensed producer, the regulations are
voluminous. It’s a huge document and
they are subject to strict oversight and control, very strict security,
sanitation and what we get from a licensed producer is a product of
known potency, purity and provenance. And this is really important in a medical
marijuana regime, people have to know the dosage of what they’re taking,
its potency. They also have to be assured that it doesn’t have illegal chemicals
and the whole operation is conducted in such a way which is more
responsible to the neighbourhood about venting and air quality,
security, safety, sanitation, etc., and so when asked about licensed producers I
will tell you that I have become confident that this can be done right
under a strict regulatory regime because I’ve seen it done wrong in the absence
of those regulations. I will also point out to you in October of 2014 while I
was still the police chief and before I had any political affiliation, the Centre
of Addiction Mental Health (CAMH) published a report advocating for a public health
framework in the regulation of cannabis, legalization and a public health
regulation, a strict regulation of cannabis, and I spoke very publicly
at that time. Government policy should be based on evidence and not on
some political calculation or the electoral map and this was the first
well-documented, evidentiary-based advocacy around a different way
of controlling this substance and I spoke very positively about it at that
time. By legalizing marijuana does Canada run the risk of running afoul of
the UN? Are there any potential consequences or do you think this is
something that they won’t bother to enforce? I wouldn’t presume to say what
the UN is going to do but I will tell you I’ve had a great deal of discussion
with the United Nations Organization of Drug Control, bilateral discussions with
our most prominent partners on this file, and again there are issues in those
international conventions. The international conventions were signed in
1962. Since that time, a number of countries, not the least of which the
United States, eight states in the United States have
legalized marijuana, 28 of them have legalized medical marijuana, which if in
a very technical reading of those conventions, might have put them in
in contravention of those conventions. One of the
things that I think is little understood because it’s very rarely mentioned,
I find in the media everyone one talks about legalization of marijuana, and
again I would say if that’s all we were going to do I think it would create real
jeopardy for Canada in relation to those three international conventions.
But of course that’s not all we’re going to do and for some reason the media seems awfully reluctant to acknowledge the rest of the promise, which is to strictly
regulate, to restrict its access, regulate production, distribution
and consumption, and what is almost never sort of acknowledged and understood, that
production outside of the regulatory regime will still be a criminal offence.
Trafficking of marijuana outside of the regulatory regime will still
be a criminal offence. Importation and exportation of marijuana produced
outside of the licensed regime and absent of the necessary permits and
agreements internationally would still be a very serious criminal offence, and I
suspect by the way that you’ll see additional criminal offence one in
particular that will create a new offense for selling to kids. Because
we’re really trying to keep this out of the hands of kids, and so I think we were
able to say to our international partners, “yes we’re finding a better way
to protect our kids, protect our communities, and protect the health of
our citizens”, but we are not in any way jeopardizing our bilateral or
multilateral relationships with other countries around the world. We’re still
holding up our end, which is the spirit of those conventions but we’re looking
at smarter ways to protect our own citizens and to manage this difficult
issue, and it is a complicated issue, properly within our own country. And I
will tell you uniquely in the world, many countries have approached this. In
Colorado, Washington overwhelmingly a commercial model of regulation. They
looked at maximizing their revenue. With great respect, and if you look at our
task force report, what we asked the task force to do was to look at this issue to
a public health lens and to look at reducing the social and health harms. I
think we’re the only country that’s ever approached it in this way and we’ve even
said we recognize that there are both financial and revenue implications but
the revenue that is potentially generated from this as an enterprise has
to be reinvested in research, public education, prevention, treatment and
rehabilitation. Clearly the approach is overwhelmingly focused on reducing
social and health harms in that public health framework and with all those
things taken in that context, I think that brings a more nuanced discussion
around our compliance with those international conventions. Frankly what I think we were able to present to the world is, this is a smarter way to
control the production, distribution and consumption of this drug within our own
borders and we’re not putting any other nation at risk as a result of the
approach that we’re taking. A specific, negative implication includes law
enforcement being incapable of detecting the level of impairment of drivers.
Another implication is the inability to test the potency of edibles. In your
opinion what mechanisms can be implemented to fix these issues? I will tell you we spent a lot of time talking to people in Colorado and
they were very generous in explaining all the things that they messed up and
and part of it was because they had a ballot initiative which said that they were going to legalize it
and tax it, and so the regulatory regime that they put in place was
overwhelmingly focused on maximizing the revenue to be generated from that, and
they didn’t put anything in place: regulatory controls on production or on
things like edibles or the potency of products or in the advertising of
products. And so they saw a lot of marketing to kids and a lot of problems
that arose from the edible situation and quite frankly the technology and science
around impaired detection was not in a particularly good place five years ago,
it’s getting better, it’s not perfect but it’s getting enormously better. And so
let me tell you, we have and if you’ve read our task force report, we
canvassed the evidence and looked at the experience of other jurisdictions, looked
at the science and got the best advice we could on how we should manage high
potency products, edible products. If you put in a proper regulatory regime
around production that includes– and I say this a lot, it’s a bit of a mantra–
includes regulation that enables us to determine with certainty potency, purity,
and providence, basically potency people have to know what’s in what you’re
consuming and you have to know how strong it is
so that you can determine what effect it will have on you. Purity is really
important because we’ve seen either pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, other
adulterating chemicals, and sometimes other drugs, on street drugs, are mixed in
and people don’t know what it is they’re consuming and there’s risks associated
to that, significant risk associated with that. And providence is also important if you
if you want to make sure that the only thing being consumed comes from a
measured, accountable, tested production environment, you have to be able to track
through genetic markers seed-to-sale and that’s all now possible, and
Colorado is doing that too now by the way, and so that’s why this is kind of
complicated, making sure the proper regulatory controls are in place. And on
what’s being produced, what’s being consumed, what’s being sold, and how much, and who it’s being sold to. One of the questions, and this was a really
interesting discussion that we’ve had in government, is you can either ban
something prohibited or regulate it. And the things that are risky– high
potency products– you have a choice. You can either say if it’s above
this potency we’re going to ban it and if you do that the black market will
fill the market and fill the gap, or you can say we can regulate it so
that we know what’s in it but we can also control a little bit of its
sale and consumption through volumetric pricing. So the higher the potency, we did
this with alcohol, the higher the potency the higher the price. Volumetric taxation and greater restrictions on who it’s sold to and in
what amounts and circumstances under which some of these things can be
consumed. And so all of those things are being strongly examined in our
preparation for bringing regulations forward. I want to talk to you a little
bit about impaired too because it’s a really important issue. We’ve been
testing, oral fluids testing devices, for the past several months. We test them in
eight jurisdictions across the country. They’re in use in a number of other
jurisdictions and the technology and the science around that is rapidly
progressing, but there are some problems with it I’ll explain that in a
second. But we’ve been testing them to make sure they work in a Canadian
environment mostly because of the cold and they do, and that’s a very positive
thing, but you then have to pass legislation that approves that
device and the approval is based on a recommendation. There’s a thing called
the Society for Forensic Sciences and their drugs and driving committee and
they have to make a recommendation to government for approved devices,
and they have to meet a certain standard, no more than like a maximum five percent
fail rate, those types of things. And so those devices have to be allowed
by law and then they have to acquire them and train police officers how to
use them. You write in law the circumstances under which that test can
be demanded, usually by our standards it surrounds a test of reasonable suspicion
that the person’s used the drug, and then you’ve got to figure out what to do with
the reading of that. There’s also toxicology tests but there’s a bit of a
problem with cannabis in the way it is dispelled from the body and it
metabolizes in different ways, I’m getting a little technical and I apologize, but
but this is a complicated issue but really important. I will tell you that
we’ve made an absolute commitment, and I wouldn’t make this commitment if I wasn’t
absolutely certain we can do this, we’ve made a commitment. We will make sure that we had the legislation, the technology, the training and the
resources that both the police and our courts will need to keep the
roadways safe and then there’s another component, and this is really important and I
alluded to it earlier, public education. People need to understand the impact of the drugs that they’re consuming on their ability to drive, which means
they must also have knowledge of the potency, and the effects, the
pharmacological effects of the drugs that they’re taking, and I will tell you
that the state of the sciences is this: for alcohol, we say if you drink more
than this amount (which is 0.08 in the current law) then you’re
impaired, and that’s a criminal offense. It’s called a per se limit. The science
around most drugs, including cannabis makes it difficult to determine with
absolute precision a per se limit above which everyone is impaired, but it’s
equally difficult to say that there’s a safe level for use and frankly from
my perspective and the absolute importance of keeping our roadways safe
for everybody, I think as a society we should begin with the premise
it’ll be legal to use this drug but if you use this drug don’t drive because it
does affect your ability to drive and I think that’s the right approach. I wish
we’d done that with alcohol quite frankly, I wish we’d started there with alcohol,
because we say if you drink more than this you shouldn’t drive. We’re asking
people to make a judgement about their ability to drive when their judgments
been impaired, it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense. And then you know in this
country, four people a day on average die as a result of impaired driving, and
that’s unacceptable. And so I will tell you we’re
taking, what I’m hoping will be a very responsible and through some people’s
lens a very strict approach, to keeping our roadways safe and how we manage
the impaired, and so you’ll see and hear about in the not-too-distant future the
introduction of new legislation, new technologies, new training. There’s a
whole bunch of things involved in that. Drugs such as fentanyl are tied to an
increasing number of deaths in Canada. To voice avoid seizure at the border
they’re often wrapped as gifts or labeled as a household detergent with an
accompanied certification. The Canada Border Services Agency also
works due diligently to ensure that all
goods coming in to the country through the mail system or by courier are inspected.
However, the agency is only authorized to open packages that weigh more than 30
grams and need the supplier’s permission to open the smaller ones. In
regards to this what would use as the best way to tackle the imports of drugs
as such? We’ve made some real progress on the fentanyl front. I’m sure you’re aware,
if you’re not aware please make yourself aware, particularly on the west coast of
the country but it’s a problem right across the country. Opioid overdose
and death have become an enormously significant problem in this country and
fentanyl and various derivatives of fentanyl, car fentanyl in particular, are
really dangerous. And particularly with dangerous for what what I would call the
“naive user”, someone who’s not familiar with using intravenous use of
opioids, and it takes more than they should and is accidentally killing
themselves. And we lost nearly 3,000 Canadians last year. Totally unacceptable.
You know if we lost 3,000 people in a fire or a flood everybody would
recognize that we have a crisis on our hands and yet because this is people who
are using drugs non-medically and recreationally, for some reason it
hasn’t sparked the same outrage. So it really demands a response and a big part
of that is public education and I appreciate the opportunity just simply
to say to people you know in society these are incredibly dangerous drugs and
and a couple of grains of this no bigger than a couple of grains of sand can take
you out. And if you don’t know what you’re doing really, really dangerous
stuff and so everybody please be careful. Having said that, the vast majority of
the illegal fentanyl that’s on our street, first of all fentanyl has two
major sources. One is diversion from the legitimate medical market and that’s
a problem, people sort of surfing through somebody’s medicine
cabinet, but the vast majority of what’s available on the streets recreationally
has been imported primarily from Asia. And I will tell you that from our
experience, much of the precursor chemicals in its manufacture
and the drug itself, was coming in from the People’s Republic of China
and there wasn’t strong precursor control or regulatory control about that.
About six weeks ago, the PRC scheduled that, the People’s
Republic of China scheduled that drug, and put very strict limits on its
exportation and the precursor of chemicals used in its manufacture. This is a huge
step forward for the world on this and we’re very appreciative that has
happened. And so I think what you’ll see is a better job of supply interdiction.
When we talk about opioid addiction a lot of people look for one simple
solution. You’ll often hear people talking for example about supervised
injection sites, and there is a place for those but I think we need to make
sure that we do a better job in supply interdiction, and that’s what you’ve
referred to, and making it just this less accessible, particularly through illegal
distribution, and you know from a doctor or pharmacist these things
actually have a valid therapeutic value in pain control but they’re
vastly abused, so you’ve got to do a better job in supply interdiction. More
importantly, I think you’ve got to do a better job of in demand reduction and
part of that is reducing the demand for illegal opioids, but also educating
people on safer and more helpful ways of using injectable opioids so that people
don’t kill themselves. There’s also and I’ve already alluded to this as well
there’s nowhere near enough research, nowhere near enough rehabilitation,
treatment and prevention available and so one of the challenges we face, I was
talking– I went to see the chief of Vancouver a few weeks ago, and we were
talking about fentanyl because in British Columbia nearly a thousand
people died last year as a fentanyl overdose. And they’re seeing nearly
200 people a month dying this year, it is a true crisis and yet they only had
about a dozen rehab beds available to them and almost no detox beds. So you’d
get somebody who was clearly in a crisis, they have an antidote that
that will more or less save the person for about 15 minutes, but you got to be right
there when their heart stops in order to administer it. And if there’s no
detox or rehab services available you’re going to get
to do it all again tomorrow. And eventually we’re not going to be
successful in saving those individuals. And so there is no one response to this,
it’s a huge societal challenge and you’ve got to do it all, you’ve got to take the necessary steps to reduce this illegal supply. You’ve got
to reduce the demand for it and for those who will not be deterred, you’ve got
to make sure that there is treatment and rehabilitation services to help
them get out of the jeopardy that they’re in because of their drug
addiction. And so I think that’s what is demanded of us as a society. I
get a little frustrated when somebody says well just lock everybody
up or just you know save them as they’re overdosing. We need a
more comprehensive response, it’s a more responsible way to deal with it. Although there have been many amendments to carding in the past few years, a lot of critics still believe that they have been ineffective and racial profiling through this still exists. Do you think there are any other means to secure police intelligence without carding by patrol officers? One of the
challenges we face in this is there is unfortunately not a very clear
understanding in the public’s mind about what carding is. And again if you’re
referring to racial bias, you know racially profiling an
individual, that’s not what carding is. Carding is, and I’ll give you just
an example of what it actually is, at two o’clock in the morning if you encounter
somebody walking through an alleyway in the City of Toronto, most people don’t
want to be up that alleyway, but as a cop I spent most of my nights in
alleyways like that. And you see somebody at two o’clock in the morning, every cop
what they’ll do is, they’ll ask the person, “who are you? Where are
you going?” You know, “what are you up to?” And if the guy says, “I’m so-and-so, I live
right there I’m coming home from work”– “Have a good night, thanks very much”, but
if he doesn’t have much of an explanation as to why he’s in the alleyway and it’s an alleyway where there’s been a lot of break and enters or a lot of
robberies or a lot of violence, we need those cops to be asking those
people “who are you what are you doing here? What’s going on?” And if the guy gives you really bad answers
about what he’s doing there, then you investigate further then that could lead
to an arrest, a search, a number of other things, but if it doesn’t you don’t have
grounds to take any further action, but you know this person and you know
they’re in these circumstances that are at least suspicious, but don’t get you to
reasonable grounds, and so you record that information and you share that
information with other law enforcement people. So somebody’s investigating a
sexual assault that takes place the next day or through the night or a break and
enter or robbery. You may not have had that information at the time that could
have led you to an arrest, but it’s shared with somebody who might have other
evidence and information that could lead to the solving of that crime. The
recording of that information is carding. It is what the police do and by the way,
the police everywhere. I remember when this became an issue when I was still
the Chief of Police, and I’m trying to explain to people, this is what police
officers do every day. Quite frankly most of the other police services in Ontario
were hiding under the desk at the time because they didn’t want the negative
attention that went with that until somebody said we’re taking that away and
now they’ve all said wait a minute this is how we do police work. So
it’s important to explain how police work works, so that the public can have a
good understanding of what doing it right looks like.
Now here’s what doing it wrong looks like. If you see somebody coming down the
street and you decide you should stop and ask them who they are and what
they’re up to, not because of the suspicious circumstance in which you
encounter them, but because of how they look (their race, their ethnicity, their
gender), if you’re making the decisions based on those grounds, that’s based on
bias. It can be racism, it can be other forms of bias, and that’s wrong.
It’s also stupid by the way because it doesn’t lead to making good decisions or
gathering good, useful information. The only good information comes from the
circumstances, the legitimate observations and circumstances under
which you come to believe that it’s necessary to ask that all-important
question, “who are you and where are you going?” And so when we say carding is bad, I would say, are we talking about actually investigating a circumstance,
recording the information and sharing it with law enforcement under legitimate
areas of inquiry, or are we talking about where bias has influenced the decision
that we been made? And I will tell you you know you’re all a well-educated group
of people in this room, you all have biases, you’re all human beings, every
every human being is subject to a bias. Now there are societies where
people own their biases, they’re explicit in their racism. This isn’t one
of those societies, but implicit bias, I’ve spent a lot of time
looking at the science of bias, because there’s actually some things you can do
about it, but implicit bias is a fact of life in our society. We are
all impacted by it. When you do a sensitive job like the police have to do,
then it’s necessary to make sure that the police have the tools and the training
and an understanding of the influence that bias can have on them. And I will
tell you I was a cop for 40 years and over time you learn to be a little
bit more self-aware and when you start to think about why am I doing this, why am
I stopping and talking to this guy? And you realize the circumstances don’t
justify it. My biases are what’s influencing me, you need to be self-aware
and you need to try to check that type of thinking, and you need to get better
at it. And so we put all police officers in Toronto through what we call fair and
impartial police training and it’s all based on helping them have a better
understand of the science of bias and how it can influence the decisions that
they make. I think we need to do a much better job in our society and with the
police in making sure that we take the bias out of their decision-making, but we
shouldn’t take away the legitimate and necessary actions that actually help
keep communities safe, help us deal with crime, and help us deal with
victimization in our society. And when you take those tools away you know it’s
a choice, a balance, if you will. Thanks. I want to thank him on behalf of Ryerson. I think Toronto and Canada are well served with
people of your caliber serving in public light. Thank you very much. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]

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