The Basics on Bill C-45
This is the first in a series of posts I am writing on C-45 to help you stay informed about the bill and the processes happening here in the Senate.
Bill C-45 would, if approved by parliament, legalize and strictly regulate the production, distribution and consumption of recreational cannabis in Canada. It is designed to better regulate cannabis to discourage its use by minors and to disrupt our country’s massive illegal cannabis market (valued at $6b to $7b annually) in which organized crime is reported to be playing an increasing role.
The proposed shift to legalization/strict regulation would maintain and, in some cases, increase criminal penalties for illegal production and trafficking of cannabis, especially in the case of selling to minors (maximum of 14 years imprisonment). It would also introduce a more flexible approach to penalties for relatively minor offenses as part of an effort to reduce the impact of criminal records on the lives of young people. You can read the legislative backgrounder here:
Where is the Bill in the Legislative Process?
Bill C-45 was approved by the House of Commons in the fall of 2017. Prior to its approval it was reviewed by a Commons Committee which heard from more than 100 witnesses including medical and scientific experts, policy experts, industry associations and individuals. The bill is now being considered by the Senate.
As the bill’s sponsor in the Senate, I launched the Second Reading stage of debate on the bill at the end of November 2017. This will continue in the Senate chamber at the end of January. My job as sponsor is to help in steering the legislation through the various stages of the Senate process and speaking at key points along the way. You can read my Second Reading statement here:
Committee of the Whole: – A Hint of Innovation in the Senate
At Second Reading, senators discuss the major policy objectives of the proposed legislation and the overall approach to meeting those objectives. This is followed by referral to a Senate Committee at which we hear from experts, stakeholders and citizens.
Before referral to a Committee, and to complement the Second Reading process, senators will on February 6, convene as a "Committee of the Whole" which makes it possible to receive the sponsoring government ministers associated with the bill, including the ministers of Health, Justice, and Public Safety, in the Senate Chamber. At this session, which will be televised, the ministers will present the key policy objectives of the bill and they will be an opportunity for senators to ask questions for a couple of hours.
This process is not regularly used although it was highly successful in the 2016 debates on Medical Assistance in Dying legislation as part of process innovations that attracted a large public following and some rare positive news for the Senate during that period.
I have proposed that other changes adopted as part of the 2016 process should be considered as we deal with C-45. Specifically, more planned and organized debates with blocks of debate time assigned to the calendar in a way that would help citizens and stakeholder groups follow the Senate’s deliberations.
These innovations were highly successful in efficiently organizing time and focusing debates. But my proposal was rejected by some senators who say they prefer the more traditional (arguably inefficient) approach to debates on the cannabis bill. So we are not talking here about a particularly change-friendly organization, even where suggested process changes have proven to be highly successful in the past.
When the initial Second Reading debates are completed the Bill is referred to a Senate Committee which hears from expert witnesses and others with an interest in the proposed legislation. On completing its work the Committee will report back to the Senate as a whole, sometimes with amendments approved by the Committee. The Senate will then re-commence debate, focusing on the bill’s details and any proposed amendments from the Committee, or additional ones introduced by individual senators.
The process concludes with a Third Reading vote which is the final step in approving the proposed legislation.
How Long Will This Take?
This is the question I have heard most from journalists over the past several weeks. The question is driven by the federal Government’s July 2018 target date for the proposed new regime. But calls for delay on the part of some Senators, and even the Conservative Party Leader in the House of Commons, have added some potential conflict to the mix. Some want delay because of political opposition to the agenda of the government; others oppose the proposed regime on policy grounds; and yet others take the view that the government is “rushing” towards change without adequate preparation or impact analysis.
On the other side of this, Canadian governments have been exploring cannabis reform for decades.
- A Senate Committee chaired by Conservative Senator Claude Nolin recommended similar reforms in 2002);
- In 1972 the much-heralded Le Dain Commission recommended that cannabis be decriminalized;
- An Expert Task Force on Cannabis Reform recommended the C-45 model in 2016, and the proposed legislation has already been closely studied by a House of Commons Committee, which heard from over 100 witnesses;
- Cannabis reforms have also been studied by Canada’s Centre for Addictions and Mental Health, leading to a 2014 recommendation supporting legalization and strict regulation;
In April this year the proposed legislation will have been in the parliamentary process for a year which, some would argue, is hardly rushing it.
I take the view that, if senators roll up their sleeves and do the efficient and effective work expected of us by Canadians, we could easily be moving to final voting on the Bill in two or three months from now. So, conceivably, sometime in mid-spring. But I am concerned that partisan-driven adjournments and other procedural tactics might become a factor. We have seen this in the Senate over the past year with persistent and purposeful stalling of a vote on a Bill proposing a change to the National Anthem in an effort to make it more gender-neutral.
It’s also worth noting that Canada is no stranger to the legal production and distribution of cannabis. A robust medical cannabis framework has been in place since 2003. The government had licensed almost fifty medical cannabis producers prior to Bill C-45’s introduction. Today in Canada, quality and potency-controlled medical cannabis is now delivered securely by authorized producers to over 200,000 users across the country. U.S. states, several European countries and Australia have expressed interest in Canada’s approach to cannabis, and Canadian producers are entering into supply arrangements with several of those jurisdictions.
Finally, provinces and territories, who will be responsible for distribution of cannabis, and some aspects of enforcement, have responded well to the July target date. Many have already selected a distribution model and elected to use the latitude provided in Bill C-45 to take a precautionary approach to access to cannabis by young people. In general, no-one under 18 or 19 years (depending on jurisdiction) will have lawful access to recreational cannabis.
Ontario, Canada’s largest province, has been clear that it will be ready for implementation of a reformed cannabis regime by July of this year and has already put in place implementation legislation. The government of New Brunswick, which has declared cannabis to be a component of its economic development strategy, is joining other provinces is arranging cannabis supply arrangements with producers. And the Federation of Canadian Municipalities says that “municipalities are ready and capable partners in fulfilling this federal commitment to Canadians.”
A Healthy and Open National Discussion on Cannabis
Regardless of the course taken by Bill C-45 in the Senate, its introduction in the House of Commons last April sparked a much-needed open and evidence-informed discussion across the country. I think that many of us were aware of the widespread availability and use of the drug in Canada, and especially by young people. We know more about the harms of recreational cannabis than we ever have before, and a great deal more about the size and nature of the illicit cannabis market. We are also learning about the importance of bringing a public health and harm reduction lens to issues associated with cannabis – approaches that have been discouraged under the decades-old prohibition model. A model that has clearly failed.
In my role as Sponsor of the Bill I have worked over the past few months to bring an evidence-based approach to the proposed legislation. My office has arranged expert panels for the benefit of senators and their staff and we have offered to share our own background materials, research reports and materials gathered at a conferences, with all senators. More recently, I have also invited senators to visit a large cannabis production facility in Smiths Falls, Ontario during February.
Some of these things are a little novel in the context of the Senate and have raised a few eyebrows, but the response overall has been very positive and I`m hearing that a number of senators would like to build on some of these practices as they take on the role as sponsors or critics.
Next: I will comment on the current availability of illegal cannabis in Canada and its known harms, especially for young people. These are here-and-now issues. They are among the key issues that Bill C-45 has been designed to address.