UNITED NATIONS, United Nations — Health Minister Jane Philpott delivered an impassioned speech at a UN special session on drugs on Wednesday, where she announced Canada will introduce legislation next spring to spark the process of legalizing and regulating marijuana.
The announcement provides the first concrete signal from the Trudeau government about the timeline it has in mind to green-light pot for recreational purposes.
In her address, Philpott acknowledged the pot plan "challenges the status quo in many countries," but she said the Liberal government believes it's the best way to protect youth and enhance public safety.
Canada must do better when it comes to drug policy, she added, saying the government's approach will be rooted in science and will address the devastating consequences of drugs and drug-related crimes.
"I am proud to stand up for our drug policy that is informed by solid scientific evidence and uses a lens of public health to maximize education and minimize harm," she said.
"As a doctor, who has worked both in Canada and sub-Saharan Africa, I have seen too many people suffer the devastating consequences of drugs, drug-related crime and ill-conceived drug policy. Fortunately, solutions are within our grasp."
Philpott began her speech with an emotional recounting of a story she recently heard from a mother who lost her daughter to substance abuse.
The woman told of watching her daughter die as she sought help for her, the minister said.
"She described watching her daughter slip away as she struggled to access the treatment and services that should have been available to save a beautiful, fragile life," she said.
"Stories like this are far too commonplace. Countless lives are cut short due to overdoses of licit and illicit substances. Today, I stand before you as Canada's minister of health to acknowledge that we must do better for our citizens."
Philpott's speech happened to coincide with 4-20, the annual day of celebration for cannabis culture lovers.
Thousands participated in events across the country to mark the occasion, including on Parliament Hill.
David-George Oldham, the founder of a medicinal marijuana advocacy group and an organizer of the Ottawa event, was satisfied with Philpott's announcement.
"I would like to see a quicker route of action, but I'm pleased to hear of any news really that means we will be getting to a better place for all with respect to cannabis prohibition," he said.
He said he hopes this means "we can have regulations that finally make sense for once."
As Canada looks to proceed with its pot policy, Health Canada is working to develop a new regime for marijuana regulation and control with support from Justice and Public Safety.
The government plans to appoint a task force — led by Liberal MP and former Toronto police chief Bill Blair — to look into designing such a system. A Health Canada secretariat will support the group.
The task force will solicit the views of provincial and territorial governments, key experts and the general public to help Ottawa implement a legislative and regulatory system "mid-mandate," say internal notes obtained through the Access to Information Act.
Discussions on global drug policy continue in New York until Thursday as officials from around the world gather for the UN meeting, which is billed as the first of its kind in nearly two decades.
Other countries and cultures will pursue different approaches, Philpott noted.
"I believe that if we respect one another's perspectives and seek common ground we can achieve our shared objective: protecting our citizens," she said. "Better yet, we can improve their lives."
In 1998, the UN General Assembly adopted an action plan that emphasized the need for law enforcement and a "drug-free world." Critics have argued the so-called war on drugs has been ineffective and has undermined public health efforts.
The Canadian Press