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OP-ED: Why Cannabis Legalization Can't Wait

Senator Tony Dean

Some of my senatorial colleagues worried aloud recently that the summer deadline for passing legislation that would legalize and strictly regulate cannabis is too tight.

Based on old Senate debating habits, they may have an argument. But given the importance of this legislation for public health and harm reduction, there are improvements we can make to the way we do business that can ensure both expeditious passage and sober second thought.

Bill C-45 is in the final stage of debate in the House of Commons and could arrive in the Senate for consideration before year’s end. The problems that the bill aims to address are worth recapping. 

Millions of Canadians consume cannabis, and young Canadians aged 15-24 are among the highest users of the drug in our country, and globally. 21% of 15 to 19 year-old Canadians use cannabis, a figure that rises to 30% for young adults aged 20-24.

The health risks associated with cannabis use are well known, and can be especially devastating for younger people who use the drug frequently and heavily. Damage to young lives is also caused by criminalization for possession of cannabis, which disproportionately affects Indigenous Peoples and other racialized Canadians.

And finally, while Canada has a thriving and tightly regulated medical cannabis regime with extensive quality controls, its massive, $7 billion, totally illicit recreational market is entirely unregulated. This leaves many users, including younger users, guessing at both the quality and potency of the cannabis they are consuming. 

Given the risk of harm around cannabis use, the conversation on legalization and regulation is not new. The Le Dain Commission recommended decriminalization of cannabis in Canada in 1972; a 2002 Senate of Canada Report, chaired by the late Conservative Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, concluded that criminalizing cannabis was more harmful to Canadians than legalizing and carefully regulating it.

The same recommendations emerged again in a 2014 report from Canada’s world-renowned Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). In all cases, governments chose to look the other way — and we have been doing that ever since. Until now. 

So how will senators handle bill C-45 should it land on their desks in the coming weeks and months?

Senators will want to carefully look at the proposed legislative and regulatory scheme and deliver on their constitutional responsibility to apply sober second thought.

But real sober second thought takes time, planning and focus. The Senate has lots of experience in taking its time, but can sometimes fall short on planning and organizing its work. 

Debates on major bills are often disjointed, moving on and off the agenda and getting caught up in partisan wrangling. It’s hard for senators to follow — let alone those outside the Senate with an interest in our debates.

In June of last year, Bill C-14, dealing with medical assistance in dying, challenged the Senate’s usual approach to debate and benefited from thoughtful planning. Before my appointment I followed those debates in the Senate closely with millions of other Canadians. It was a historic and highly successful project that saw senators working together to ensure that the best interests of Canadians were protected.

The debates on C-14 were sensibly organized by themes; they provided senators ample opportunity to speak and did not limit the number of amendments, instead clustering them together by subject matter. It was transparent, accessible and meaningful for Canadians. 

I have argued in the Senate that the country deserves a similar, more modern and accessible sort of debate on the legalization and regulation of cannabis.

If we can organize and bring focus to our deliberations on the bill by creating a process and timetable that is responsive to the interests of Canadians, especially younger Canadians, we can achieve the kind of scrutiny that citizens and stakeholders expect and deserve from us.

I’m not talking about limiting or rushing discussion. I’m talking about organizing discussion — a predictable, formulated debate that ensures ample opportunity to address the concerns of Canadians while keeping minority and regional interests top of mind. 

With television cameras coming into the Senate in the year ahead, Senators have an additional incentive to organize scheduled, deliberative debates that engage Canadians and can also help regain public trust in our democratic institutions. We have the tools and capacity to audition a new and modern way of doing “Senate business” — and we’ll never get a better opportunity to experiment. 

This article appeared in the November 10, 2017 edition of iPolitics.

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