Canada’s frontline officers and police chiefs are alarmed by the growing chaos in the marijuana industry, saying the Liberal Party’s promise to eventually legalize the drug has sparked confusion across the country.

Illegal pot dispensaries are opening up from coast to coast at the same time as some users feel they should no longer be subject to the Criminal Code, prompting law-enforcement officials to urge the Trudeau government to remind Canadians that marijuana remains an illegal drug.

The dispensaries are ostensibly set up to distribute medical marijuana, but many are believed to also sell cannabis for recreational use with the flimsiest medical evidence or documentation. The licensed producers of medical marijuana have responded by launching a lobbying campaign to persuade the government to shut down the dispensaries. At the same time, these legal producers of medical marijuana are vying to be the first in line to legally produce marijuana for recreational use.

“The discussion [surrounding legalization] that is occurring is causing a lot of confusion, even from an enforcement perspective,” said Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association, which represents 52,000 frontline police officers across the country.

“On the street, you have citizens who are convinced or have allowed themselves to be convinced that marijuana is now legal and it’s okay to not only use it, but to manufacture and sell it.” In many ways, he said, tobacco and alcohol are now more regulated and face tougher restrictions than cannabis, as some pot stores openly advertise their products and sell to minors.

In the past election, the Liberals promised to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes, but the legal changes are months away as consultations with the provinces and other groups have yet to start.

“Now that the Liberals are in government, and this is an agenda that they have, there does need to be some action and messaging from them as they work toward developing the statutory framework and the ensuing regulations [for legalization],” Mr. Stamatakis said in an interview.

Saskatoon police chief Clive Weighill, who presides over the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, agreed the government needs to deal with the uncertainty created by its promise. He said police forces have cracked down on dispensaries in cities from Halifax to Nanaimo, but that the government also needs to speak out.

“The police have taken the enforcement action that we have up to date. I think it would certainly help if the government would come forth and advise people that the legislation isn’t in place yet and that the laws will be enforced until it is,” he said in an interview.

In a statement, Liberal MP Bill Blair said the government will not be rushed as it moves to “legalize, strictly regulate and restrict access to marijuana in a careful and orderly way.”

“We will take the time that is necessary to get this right,’ said the government’s point man on the file.

In the meantime, however, he said all current laws will apply and need to be enforced.

“Until Parliament has enacted new legislation and new rules are in place to ensure that marijuana is carefully regulated, current laws remain in force and should be obeyed,” said Mr. Blair, parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice.

Mr. Stamatakis has had private discussions on the issue of legalization with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale. He said he is convinced that once the drug is legalized, it will be tightly restricted.

“My first impression is that we will end up with a similar legislation and regulatory framework to what we have for alcohol and tobacco, which, from a law-enforcement perspective, is the direction we should go in,” he said.

In the meantime, however, different jurisdictions are tackling the matter differently. In Vancouver, the city is moving toward a system to license a number of marijuana dispensaries. At the same time, Saskatoon has recently busted a similar establishment.

“We have an obligation to enforce the Criminal Code of Canada, but you have different levels of government, especially at the municipal level, who are taking a different approach,” he said. “It is a tough challenge.”

Both Mr. Stamatakis and Mr. Weighill said a key issue, as Canada moves toward a legalized marijuana market, will be finding ways to enforce laws against impaired driving.

“We would be looking for legislation around impaired driving for marijuana, possibly a recognized instrument to measure the levels of THC, like we can with alcohol,” Mr. Weighill said.

He added he will also seek legislation to ensure that “anyone who is selling it to youth will be prosecuted.”

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Feb. 07, 2016 8:16PM EST
Last updated Sunday, Feb. 07, 2016 10:14PM EST