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OP-ED: Bill C-45: a characteristically Canadian model of cannabis reform

Senator Tony Dean

The Canadian model of cannabis reform is focused on improving public health and protecting our kids. It will be constrained, conservative, and reflective of middle-ground Canadian value.

Canada is on track to legalize and strictly regulate cannabis some time in the next few months.

This is not without controversy, but we are not going to see the sort of Wild West model that unfolded rapidly in Colorado and other U.S. states.

The Canadian model of cannabis reform is focused on improving public health and protecting our kids. It will be constrained, conservative, and reflective of middle-ground Canadian values. It will be tailored to Canadian experience with the use of cannabis, and will reflect the extensive consideration Canada has already given to drug reforms and lessons learned from other jurisdictions.

Unlike referendum-driven legalization which caught some U.S. states off-guard, Canada's reforms are government-led and based on the advice of an expert panel which included a former minister of Health and current chief medical officer of health.

Canada's model puts public education and harm reduction front and centre. This was a late after-thought in the U.S. Our model will also be more restrictive in regulating the sale of cannabis products, in its approach to advertising, and in the significant focus it places on health warnings at the point of sale.

How did we get here?

First, the proposed reforms are designed to tackle the easy availability and widespread use of cannabis in Canada-and particularly by the one-in-five 15-19 year-olds, and one-in-three 20-24 year olds, who have used cannabis.

Canada's teens are among the highest users of cannabis in the world and there is broad consensus that health risks are greatest when cannabis is used frequently and heavily in these early years.

There is also agreement that criminalizing cannabis possession, which has resulted in lifelong criminal records for tens of thousands of Canadians, has to be addressed.

The government also wants to disrupt Canada's massive illegal cannabis market valued at north of $6-billion annually (on par with Canada's domestic wine industry).

Second, cannabis reform is not new to Canada, giving policy makers a head start in drafting the revised law.

The Le Dain Commission recommended pot reform in 1972, followed by a 2002 Senate report chaired by then-Conservative Senator Pierre Claude Nolin. He concluded that legalizing and regulating cannabis would be safer for young Canadians than continuing to prohibit it. Nolin's recommendations have since been supported by Canada's renowned Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Canada is already a global leader in the production and distribution of medical cannabis, both domestically and internationally. Canadian companies sell medical-quality cannabis to several countries including Germany, Australia, and New Zealand.

After 45-years of research and reflection it's clear that Canada has taken its time. Colorado had only 14 months to design and launch a new legal cannabis regime. Canada's fully developed model will spend the same amount of time just being scrutinized by both Houses of Parliament.

Canada has also been much more proactive than states such as Colorado in launching public education campaigns on cannabis and in measuring pre-legalization consumption, modes of use, and how much users pay for the drug.

An education campaign launched in November 2017 has reached millions of young Canadians and is just getting started. One-hundred-and-ten-million dollars have been earmarked in the 2018 budget for an ongoing campaign, which will be supplemented by provincial and territorial initiatives.

Statistics Canada has been benchmarking several aspects of cannabis so post-legalization impacts can be measured consistently over time and reported regularly.

And Canada's proposed regulations on health warnings, packaging, and advertising are also much tighter than those in U.S. states.

In sum, our Canadian road to legalization is, by design, a more cautious and conservative approach to reform. And caution is warranted.

As we continue examining Bill C-45 in the Senate, questions remain about a proposal to allow home cultivation of cannabis, the proposed decriminalization of possession of small amounts of cannabis by younger Canadians, and on the potential impacts of cannabis reform for Indigenous and other racialized Canadians.

Senators should work together on the remaining issues on cannabis reform with a view to finding the best outcomes for Canadians.

I'm saying let's do this the Canadian way.

The piece appeared in the Hill Times on May 7, 2018. Click here for the original article.