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Bill C-45 (Cannabis) - Second Reading Right of Final Reply

Honourable senators, I rise today as sponsor of Bill C-45 on right of final reply. I obviously want to comment on what I think has been helpful second reading debate on the bill. I thank all senators on every side of this place for speaking to this bill, which aims to take a public health and safety approach to cannabis through legalization, public education and regulation.

And given some of the discussion earlier this afternoon, I make these remarks in the spirit of compromise rather than division.

Our debates have been important in identifying some key policy issues, some opportunities and potential challenges associated with the government’s efforts to better protect the health of young Canadians — and to address Canada’s growing illegal cannabis market which, I think we all agree, is valued at between $6 billion and $7 billion annually.

We know — and we agree on this — that cannabis is today easily available and frequently used by young Canadians.

We know from Statistics Canada data, verified doubly and triply by the Library of Parliament, that one in five Canadians between ages 15 to 19 consume cannabis, and that number rises to one in three Canadians between the ages of 20 to 25. Whether that places Canada first, second or third in the world, we should be worried about it.

We also know that cannabis use by young people, again, from the Library of Parliament, did decline steadily up to 2012 from a couple of decades earlier and it has risen again since then through to 2015 — also verified by the Library of Parliament. And it is clear that early, frequent and heavy use of cannabis and other intoxicants by younger teenagers places them at considerable risk in the years that follow. The use of all intoxicants. And it’s strikingly clear that our current approach to regulating cannabis has not been successful. It has not worked. It has failed and consumption patterns alone tell us that this is the case.

Large numbers of criminal convictions for possession have made the situation even worse — we have heard that in this chamber — and especially for younger Indigenous people and other racialized young Canadians. That’s today, that’s last year, that’s five years ago and that is the present reality.

Now, key themes have emerged in the Senate’s deliberation so far and we might have anticipated some of them. Senator Carignan has mentioned them and others have mentioned them. I’m not going to go into the pros and cons. There is information and evidence that informs a number of discourses around these issues. And we’re going to have a chance to explore those further in committee, I hope.

But I want to mention the issues without commenting on their validity, such as the impact on Indigenous communities in terms of risks to health. And we also know, from the Aboriginal Peoples Committee that’s on the road, about the impact on economic development opportunities for those Aboriginal communities who are interested in taking advantage of them.

We’ve heard about minimum age of consumption, as well we should. We’ve heard about the proposed decriminalization of cannabis possession for young people possessing five grams of cannabis or less. I’m just acknowledging these things. We’ve heard about home cultivation of cannabis. We’ve heard about the regulatory framework, THC potency and advertising, as raised by Senator Seidman today, appropriately. We’ve discussed the disruption of the illegal cannabis market with issues such as the calibration of legal and illegal prices being discussed. There has also been considerable discussion of public education on cannabis.

Given Canada’s extremely high consumption rates of cannabis by younger people, we certainly know that just saying no hasn’t worked. We have heard from senators in this chamber, including Senators Smith, Petitclerc and Stewart-Olsen, that public education is critical to prevent our youth from being exposed to the potential harms of cannabis use. I couldn’t agree more.

We found consensus on something. Let’s record that.

Budget 2018 proposes to provide a further $62.5 million over five years for public education initiatives in addition to the $46 million announced earlier. This funding will support the involvement of community-based organizations and Indigenous organizations that are educating their communities on the risks associated with cannabis use.

A significant digital information campaign was launched on March 16. Many of us wouldn’t have noticed that because of course it isn’t aimed at us. There will be a TV campaign to follow in the weeks ahead.

I was seeing warning signs about drug-impaired driving on overhead gantries on motorways and highways in Ontario 18months ago before this legislation was introduced in the House of Commons.

We have helpful low-risk use guidelines for cannabis developed by the Centre for Addition and Mental Health. Much more will follow in the weeks and months ahead and indeed we need to see and hear more. In this area and the related areas of research and treatment, I think many of us appreciate Senator Lankin’s advice that we consider in this place the vehicle of observations for conveying our recommendations on the very best approach.

I want to talk some more on mental health, because mental health has been raised here repeatedly, as it should, given the impact of mental health on our communities and on our families, in many cases.

Colleagues, we have heard in this chamber some very honest, bruising and heartfelt concerns about experiences with mental health and addictions. I suspect that there are few of us in this place who have not been touched in our lives by those issues, few of us who have been spared from the ravages of alcoholism, other addictions and mental health issues in our extended families.

I’m no exception to that. I haven’t been spared. I don’t speak as one of people untouched. I understand what you’re talking about when you talk about mental health issues.

We know that early and frequent use of intoxicants, including cannabis by teenagers, can result in mental health issues later in life. We also know that alcohol, cannabis and tobacco are often used in combination, and we know that young people experiencing mental health issues often self-medicate with cannabis and alcohol.

Senator Mégie brought her professional voice to this earlier today and we’ve all learned from it. These are all risk factors that should be of concern to all of us.

Now, I searched my soul and I searched the research and I looked across Canada to figure out where I can get advice on this. When I ask these questions, I look to the Centre for Additions and Mental Health, or CAMH, Canada’s premier and world renowned research and treatment organization. I have benefited from CAMH programs. I imagine some of you have too. In fact, I know some of you have too.

Everything that CAMH does is based on science, on research and practice in its clinics, in its labs and on the streets. This has resulted in important harm-reduction products such as CAMH’s Canada’s Lower-Risk Cannabis Use Guidelines that were updated and released in 2017 and are an important contributor to public education and safe use; harm reduction.

CAMH has also contributed to cannabis policy debates. They have taken that research and science and converted it into policy advice.

Its 2014 Cannabis Policy Framework offered evidence and informed conclusions about cannabis and measures aimed at reducing harms. Copies of this report are being delivered and in fact will be in your offices when you return from the chamber this evening.

Here is what CAMH concluded in its report. Some things we know already. Cannabis use carries significant health risks, especially for people who use it frequently and/or begin to use it at early age. Criminalization of cannabis heightens these health harms and causes social harms. A public health approach focused on high-risk users and practices, similar to the approach used with alcohol and tobacco, allows for more control over the risk factors associated with cannabis-related harms.

CAMH says that from these conclusions flow another conclusion. It concludes that legalization combined with strict health-focused regulation provides an opportunity to reduce harms associated with cannabis use. However, CAMH tells us that this approach is not without risks. It advises us that legalization without regulation in areas such as setting a minimum age, prohibiting marketing and advertising, and curtailing higher-risk products may lead to an increase in cannabis use.

Now, senators, in view of our discussion over the last couple of months, this strikes me as being eminently solid, balanced and sensible advice. Why? Because it touches directly on some of the concerns that have been raised in this chamber on all sides, senators, and that are part of our consideration in looking at this bill.

I think this balance that CAMH talks about is one of the key aspects of finding that right balance. Getting that balance right is one of key aspects of our responsibility as we move forward to apply sober second thought to this bill and as we move into committee review and beyond.

Honourable senators, five Senate committees will study this legislation, which I think is unprecedented, outside of pre-budget review. With five Senate committees slated to take a look at various aspects of Bill C-45— some of that committee work was requested and argued for by people on all sides of this chamber— I think Canadians should have confidence that we are proceeding diligently and responsibly to conduct in-depth hearings in order to review and, where appropriate, to improve the bill.

And colleagues, this is really what tonight’s vote is all about, isn’t it? Equipping us to do the job that we are empowered to do as senators.

Colleagues, beyond our vote, allowing us to hear from experts at all of those committees in ways that equip us to deliver on our constitutional responsibility to bring sober second thought to this bill is absolutely critical, and in doing that, to focus not just on a compendium of problems, a long list of problems and challenges, but also to focus on solutions, which is what Canadians expect of us.

Honourable colleagues, Canadians expect us to do this work, and we have a responsibility to make these expectations. Canadians expect us to confront the issues associated with cannabis, not to sweep them back under the rug for another 20 years, senators, or to pretend that prohibition is working.

Honourable senators, Canadians want us to do our jobs, not to look the other way. Let’s now move the conversation and learning forward in a transparent and evidence-informed way, in the way that we do best. Let’s vote on second reading and refer the bill to committee. Let’s empower the Social Affairs Committee to join the other four committees in doing its work.

Colleagues, I thank all of you sincerely for the opportunity to contribute to this debate as the sponsor of this hugely important piece of legislation and I look forward to many conversations ahead.

Here is my promise to senators on all sides of this house, in every place, regardless of your office or your perspective. As I’ve done over the last several months, I will do my very, very best in working with you to contribute in a positive way and a deliberate way, as we continue our deliberations, to make this legislation the best it can be in responding to no harms of cannabis for young people in this country.

Listen to my speech here:

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