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Bill C-45 (Cannabis) - Second Reading

Honourable senators, it is my pleasure to rise in this chamber as a sponsor of Bill C-45, An Act respecting cannabis and to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the Criminal Code and other Acts, also known as the cannabis act.

This bill is both significant and historic in the context of health promotion in Canada. In that sense, to ensure there were no surprises, last night I offered to share this statement with critics — and with leaders where there are no critics assigned — and I’m happy to say that in most cases that offer was taken up.

The issue of legalization and regulation of cannabis is not new to this chamber. It is an issue that was studied 15 years ago, in 2002, by the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs. The study was chaired by the highly respected late Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, a Conservative senator and former Speaker who was highly regarded in this place, and I know he is sadly missed.

Senator Nolin’s study was prescient on cannabis reform, and in fact of the conclusions of the 2016 Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation. His striking conclusion then, in 2002, mirrored what policy, medical and community health specialists are saying today — that continuing to criminalize cannabis is more harmful to young Canadians than legalizing and regulating it. This was Senator Nolin’s advice to us.

Bill C-45 is directly responsive to Pierre Claude Nolin’s appeal to us in 2002.

Before I proceed, I want to acknowledge the efforts of the Minister of Justice, who introduced Bill C-45 in the other chamber, and her colleagues the Minister of Health and the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, all of whom have responsibility over important aspects of this bill. I would also like to thank the members of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health, who reviewed 115 briefs and heard from over 100 witnesses, and who, through their work, adopted several amendments to strengthen the bill.

I also want to thank Canada’s top-rate professional public servants for their hard work in this challenging area of public health.

Thanks also to my two staff — Amanda McLaren and Lauren Thomas, who work in my office — for working so hard to get as much advance information and research into the hands of every senator well in advance of today. We all thank them for that.

I suggest we approach Bill C-45 in three ways. I come from the world of policy, non-partisan public administration, and I’m guided by that as I do my work as sponsor in this place.

First, we must make an effort to understand the nature of the problem the government is trying to address and look closely at the evidence.

Second, we must understand the government’s desired goals and outcomes, which are to reduce the harms of cannabis use in Canada and disrupt the country’s massive $7 billion illicit cannabis market, with all of this being considered through the lens of community health and harm reduction.

Third, and important, is our task of looking at the government’s proposed means of addressing the harms of cannabis. Here we are talking about the demonstrated harms to health — and especially the health of young Canadians — as well as the potentially lifelong harms associated with criminalizing a drug which, at a population level, is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco.

I will start by reviewing the context in which Bill C-45 has been developed. Let’s look at the consumption patterns and harms of cannabis, because I know this is something that we’re all deeply interested in.

Canadians, and particularly young Canadians, continue to use cannabis at some of the highest rates in the world. According to the 2015 Canadian Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey, the prevalence of past-year cannabis use was 21 per cent among youth aged 15 to 19; just under 30 per cent among young adults aged 20 to 24; and 10 per cent among adults over the age of 25. And we know that the impacts of substance abuse on young people are greater in many indigenous communities.

The evidence is clear that young Canadians are currently consuming cannabis at alarming rates. We hear from young people that it is easier for kids to buy cannabis than cigarettes. It sure looks that way in my neighbourhood; I don’t know about yours. I watch high school kids going to school in the morning smoking cannabis, and I see them smoking cannabis coming home at night. I go for a run in High Park and I smell cannabis. A car passes me with its windows open, and I smell cannabis. People are using cannabis and driving today. Large numbers of young people are using cannabis today.

The potential harms associated with cannabis are considerable. Health Canada, in its April 2017 publication The Health Effects of Cannabis, is uncompromising about the harms of cannabis to users. Some of the short-term effects on the brain from use of cannabis can include confusion, fatigue, impaired memory and concentration, anxiety, fear, panic, and even delusions and hallucinations. Long-term effects on the brain from use of cannabis can include an increased risk of addiction, impairment to memory, concentration, intelligence, as well as impairment of one’s ability to think and make decisions.

These risks of harm have well-documented implications for school performance and decision making on important life decisions that have long-term consequences. These risks increase the younger a person is when they start using cannabis, the more often they use it and the more intensely they use it. There is evidence that frequent and heavy use of cannabis can affect brain development in children and adolescents.

Like alcohol and cigarettes, cannabis can be addictive, and early consumption is a risk factor for this. The risk of dependence jumps from 9 per cent in the case of regular users of cannabis to 16 per cent of regular users who initiated use during adolescence.

The relationship between cannabis use and impaired driving is obviously also a concern and is magnified where cannabis is consumed together with alcohol. This, of course, is the focus of Bill C-46.

Finally, there are considerable safety concerns associated with the illicit cannabis market, which in Canada alone is estimated to contribute upwards of $7 billion in income annually — reportedly, in large part, for organized crime.

The potency of illicit cannabis is often unknown and could result in heightened or prolonged harms such as confusion or anxiety. Furthermore, the quality, content and purity of illicit cannabis has no safeguards; it may contain pesticides, other drugs, heavy metals, moulds or fungi, or other contaminants — and I’m talking about today.

Beyond the health risks associated with cannabis, the criminalization of this drug results in tens of thousands of criminal records each year, which can have long-term consequences for Canadians, including stigmatization, marginalization and restricted employment opportunities.

Criminalization of cannabis has also contributed significantly to high costs and backlogs in the criminal justice system. More than half of all reported drug offences are cannabis related. In 2016, this amounted to nearly 55,000 offences reported to police. The majority of these offences —81 per cent — were possession offences. This resulted in approximately 23,000 cannabis-related charges being laid, with 76 per cent of them being related to cannabis possession. The maximum penalty for simple possession on indictment is five years less a day.

We also know that criminalization can disproportionately affect indigenous and other racialized Canadians — groups already overrepresented in our prisons. In 2015-16, indigenous youth accounted for 7.5 per cent of the overall Canadian population but made up 39 per cent of admissions to youth custody.

Honourable senators, the status quo is not working to protect the health and wellness of Canadians, and especially young Canadians.

In 2002, Senator Nolin concluded that the long-term criminalization of cannabis has been a failure — just as the Le Dain commission had concluded thirty years before, in 1972. Senator Nolin observed that in the years between those two studies in 1972 and 2002, billions of dollars had been sunk into enforcement without any great effect. The consumption of cannabis just continued to grow.

Here we are, 15 years after Senator Nolin’s report, still looking at the rate of young cannabis users in Canada being reflected among some of those that are highest in the world.

Honourable senators, we have all looked the other way too long, relying on tough-on-crime policies that actually discourage public education, community health initiatives and harm reduction programs. We need more programs that acknowledge the realities of substance abuse and that offer sensible information to inform risk-informed decision making. We simply have to do a better job in tackling the harms of cannabis.

Bill C-45 proposes a cautious, balanced approach to the legalization and regulation of cannabis through a public health-based lens and with a focus on prevention and harm reduction.

There is another side to cannabis that I want to touch on, because we’ll inevitably hear about this in committee. This relates to its therapeutic uses.

Looking, again, at a January 2017 report, The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research, from a U.S.-based ad hoc committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, it concludes, among other things, that there is substantial evidence that cannabis or cannabinoids are effective for the treatment of chronic pain in adults, for the treatment of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting and for improved patient-reported multiple sclerosis spasticity symptoms.

There is moderate evidence that cannabis or cannabinoids are effective for improving short-term sleep outcomes in individuals with sleep disturbance associated with obstructive sleep apnea, fibromyalgia, chronic pain and multiple sclerosis.

There is also some evidence to suggest that cannabis or cannabinoids may be effective in treating other issues, including increasing appetite and decreasing weight loss associated with HIV/AIDS and improving symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

I would imagine there are few of us in this place who don’t know somebody who is using medicinal cannabis to treat one of these disorders today.

Honourable senators, on that note, Canada already has a well-established medicinal cannabis regime, which will significantly inform the way forward in implementing non-medical cannabis reform. This is not a cold start. It’s not starting in July of 2018.

Canada already has a well-established medical cannabis regime. Countries around the globe, including Australia, Uruguay and European countries, as well as U.S. states, are looking closely at Canada’s existing robust production and successful distribution system for medicinal cannabis.

We currently have 76 licensed medical cannabis producers in Canada. I have visited one of them. They are serving over 235,000 licensed medical patients. Some Canadian producers are entering into supply contracts with governments in Germany and Australia. Canada is a recognized world leader in medical cannabis production, so developing a legal regime in Canada is not a cold start, although some might wish to think so.

But returning to our challenge, we know that illicit cannabis is widely available and frequently used by young people in Canada today. We know this is done in an entirely unregulated, $7 billion market in which cannabis is not tested for contaminants or potency. This is the situation today in Canada.

This was the backdrop to the government’s commitment in the 2015 Speech from the Throne to “legalize, regulate and restrict access” to cannabis.

This commitment recognized that Canada’s existing prohibitionist approach towards cannabis is not working, and that it’s time to stop looking the other way and start wrapping our arms around a serious public health challenge in this country.

Honourable senators, I believe that Bill C-45 proposes a cautious, balanced approach in legalizing and regulating cannabis. Many Canadians no longer believe that simple possession of small amounts of cannabis should be subject to harsh criminal sanctions, and the government has, in Bill C-45, proposed a better, balanced approach — one that is grounded in public health and public safety.

Honourable senators, it is important for us to understand how this issue has evolved over the years. The proposal of a new framework for legalizing and strictly regulating cannabis is not an out-of-the-blue initiative. Consideration of Canada’s domestic cannabis policy has been ongoing for decades.

Cannabis was first prohibited in Canada in 1923 when it was added to the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act by the Minister of Health without much, if any, explanation. There hasn’t been a good explanation provided since, if we are going to be honest about it.

There have been other parliamentary reviews over almost a half-century that have considered questions regarding cannabis law reform in Canada: notably, in the early 1970s, the Commission of Inquiry Into the Non-medical Use of Drugs — the LeDain commission — and in 2002, the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, which I have already mentioned.

From 1969 to 1972, the LeDain commission considered the very issues we are discussing today. Its majority recommendations included the repeal of the prohibition against the simple possession of cannabis and cultivation for personal use, while the minority view recommended a policy of legal distribution of cannabis, the removal of cannabis from the Narcotic Control Act, and implementation of provincial controls on possession and cultivation, similar to those governing the use of alcohol.

In 2002, the Special Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs determined that criminalizing cannabis possession is more harmful to young Canadians than legalizing and regulating it.

In 2014, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the largest mental health and addiction treatment centre in Canada, recommended the legalization and regulation of cannabis. That was in 2014.

And most recently, the 2016 report of the Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation, chaired by the Honourable Anne McLellan, was informed by a broad consultation and study of cannabis.

In addition to hosting a series of round-table discussions in cities across the country to engage with experts from a wide spectrum of disciplines, the task force received nearly 30,000 submissions from Canadians and considered close to 300 comprehensive written submissions. The task force heard directly from professionals, employers, front-line workers, cannabis-using medical patients, employers, indigenous stakeholders, governments and organizations.

The task force also held an indigenous round table in October 2016 that included elders, the Assembly of First Nations, the Métis National Council and the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples. Indigenous groups also participated in regional round tables in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Nova Scotia, and a bilateral meeting was held with the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. The views of these groups consulted were reflected in the report, including the need to engage indigenous communities and elders in the design and delivery of public education and awareness activities and to explore opportunities for participation in the legal cannabis industry.

The task force also conducted site visits to Colorado and Washington, two U.S. states that have recently legalized cannabis for non-medical purposes, where they were briefed by state officials. The task force also spoke with senior officials from the government of Uruguay about their unique experience as the only country to date to have enacted a regulatory system for legal access to cannabis. They visited the facilities of licensed producers on both sides of the border in order to familiarize themselves with the regulated cannabis production industry.

Honourable senators, the December 2016 final report of the task force has been very well received. It is evidence informed, comprehensive, and it provides readers with a solid grounding in the pertinent considerations related to the legalization and strict regulation of non-medical cannabis.

Now we turn to the cannabis act, which is largely aligned with the recommendations of the 2016 task force.

Bill C-45 would create a legal framework where adults can access legal cannabis through an appropriate retail framework sourced from a well-regulated industry or grown in limited amounts at home.

Adults, 18 years or older, would be permitted to legally possess 30 grams of legal dried cannabis or its equivalent for different classes of cannabis while in public. Adults could also legally share up to 30 grams of legal dried cannabis or its equivalent with other adults. Selling or possessing to sell would only be lawful if authorized under the act.

One thing is perfectly clear, there would be a strict prohibition on cannabis being sold or given to a young person. The act creates a new serious criminal offence to sell or for adults to give cannabis to a young person. The act also proposes a new serious criminal offence to use or involve a young person in the commission of a cannabis offence.

Possession, production, distribution, import, export and sale outside of the legal framework would remain illegal and be subject to criminal penalties proportionate to the seriousness of the offence.

Importantly, the penalties in Bill C-45 are significantly different from the current Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the CDSA. First, the offences proposed in Bill C-45 would now be hybrid, as opposed to strictly indictable, without any mandatory minimum penalties. Second, Bill C-45 would provide a range of penalties, from ticketing for adults who commit minor possession or personal production offences, to a maximum of 14 years of imprisonment for more serious offences.

Bill C-45 would also exempt from criminal prosecution young people who possess or share very small amounts of cannabis, up to five grams, while young persons who possess or distribute more than five grams would be subject to an offence and dealt with under the provisions of the Youth Criminal Justice Act, which emphasizes community-based responses, rehabilitation and reintegration as opposed to criminalization.

For serious offences, alternatives to charging are encouraged, such as taking no further action, warning the young person or referring them to a community program or agency to help address the circumstances underlying their behaviour.

Honourable senators, significant discussion has occurred in relation to the treatment of young persons under Bill C-45, and I would like to take some time to set out how the government’s proposed approach will focus on our young people.

Concerns have been raised in relation to the exemption of young persons from criminal prosecution for possession of up to five grams of cannabis, and suggestions that this decision is sending the wrong message to young people.

However, it should be noted that Bill C-45 aligns with the task force view that the ongoing criminalization of youth for possessing or sharing very small amounts of cannabis would do more harm than good.

It is also important to note that the federal government has been regularly engaging with the provinces and territories for the last couple of years as they develop their own implementation plans. Thus far, Canada’s largest provinces, Ontario and Alberta, are opting to use the latitude provided by Bill C-45 to create provincial or territorial offences that would prohibit young people under 18 or 19 years of age from possessing any amount of cannabis. The provinces are using the latitude given to them in Bill C-45 to eliminate the five-gram allowance.

This approach would provide police with the authority to seize cannabis from young people, while at the same time not render them liable to criminal sanctions that could negatively impact their future.

This approach would be complemented by the other protections in Bill C-45 which would serve to protect our young people by restricting youth access to cannabis; protecting young people from promotional enticements to use cannabis; prohibiting products that are appealing to young people; prohibiting the packaging and labelling of cannabis in a way that makes it appealing to youth; prohibiting the sale of cannabis through self-service displays or vending machines; and creating these new offences with significant penalties for adults who either sell or distribute cannabis to young people or who would use a young person to commit a cannabis-related offence.

Outside of the legislation itself, the government is investing $45.6 million over five years in a robust public education campaign to educate Canadians, particularly young Canadians, about the risks and harms of cannabis use. In addition, the government has also been working in partnership with organizations such as Drug Free Kids Canada that are doing a magnificent job targeting youth in campaigns that have evolved away from the “just say no” approach. It is something that we know hasn’t worked. Their Cannabis Talk Kit that gives parents the information to have informed conversations with their teens about cannabis was recently distributed to schools, communities and doctors’ offices across the country.

I would also like to note that the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy are currently working to develop an education and research campaign that prioritizes youth input. They sought out collaborators on cannabis education with the objective to develop meaningful tools for young people to access the education they deserve. I look forward to their upcoming cannabis curriculum.

Under the proposed legislation, the federal, provincial and territorial governments would all share in the responsibility for overseeing the new system. Federal responsibilities would generally be to oversee the production and manufacturing components of the cannabis framework and set industry-wide rules and standards.

In keeping with the recommendations of the task force, provinces and territories would generally be responsible for the distribution and sale components of the framework and would, of course, be able to create further provincial restrictions as they see fit, including increasing the minimum age in their jurisdiction, which is happening; lowering the possession limit for cannabis, which is happening, which could be pursued to further protect youth; creating additional rules for growing cannabis at home, including the possibility of lowering the number of plants allowed per residence, which is happening; and restricting where cannabis can be consumed, such as in public or in vehicles, which is happening. We know that provinces and territories are adopting a precautionary approach in applying these sorts of additional restrictions.

In addition to their role in establishing a secure supply chain, provinces and territories will also be key partners in the federal government’s efforts to raise public awareness about the risks associated with cannabis use. The government has indicated that it will monitor patterns and perceptions around cannabis use amongst Canadians, especially youth, through the Canadian Cannabis Survey. Such monitoring will serve to inform and refine further public education and awareness activities to mitigate the risks and harms of use.

We have covered how the government proposes to legalize and strictly regulate cannabis. However, this doesn’t mean that in advancing this approach the government is promoting the use of cannabis by any Canadian. It is recognizing that illegal cannabis is widely available and frequently used by young Canadians, and we must do a better job of providing relevant information about risks and disrupting the massive $7 billion illicit market.

Tobacco and alcohol are both legal substances for which the government has implemented significant public education measures to address the harms and risks of their use. Similarly, the government has clearly committed to the implementation and ongoing investment into public education measures to inform all Canadians, young and old, of the risks of cannabis use.

I would now like to speak briefly about the timing for the implementation of the proposed cannabis act. Some have suggested that provinces and territories will not be ready, that law enforcement will not be ready and that more time is needed. I would simply point out, honourable senators, that many experts take the opposite view — that there is a need to implement this legislation as soon as possible.

The Canadian Public Health Association, in its testimony before the Standing Committee on Health, stated:

Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of time, as Canadians are already consuming cannabis at record levels. The individual and societal harms associated with cannabis use are already being felt every day. The proposed legislation and eventual regulation is our best attempt to minimize those harms and protect the well-being of all Canadians.

Honourable senators, as we begin our study of Bill C-45, I am greatly encouraged by the tremendous amount of work that has already been carried out in our provinces and territories. Many jurisdictions have committed to and completed consultations on how cannabis legalization and regulations should be implemented in their jurisdictions. Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Alberta, Newfoundland and Labrador and Yukon have already released proposed legislation and/or frameworks describing how they will approach recreational cannabis, and Manitoba has enacted the Cannabis Harm Prevention Act. Late-breaking news, just today, is that the Northwest Territories released their framework. That’s eight provinces and territories.

Clearly, many provinces are moving forward in anticipation of the July 2018 timeline. My home province, Canada’s largest, will certainly be ready, and New Brunswick has identified cannabis production as a means of employment creation and economic diversification. The province has identified the cannabis industry as part of its economic growth plan. We are all interested in economic growth, aren’t we?

In conclusion, it’s important to note that the legalization and strict regulation of cannabis has been on everyone’s radar since December 4, 2015, when this commitment was highlighted in the Speech from the Throne that opened the First Session of the Forty-second Parliament of Canada, and as I have indicated today, for decades before that.

I would point out to all honourable senators that public attitudes have shifted insofar as the legalization and regulation of cannabis is concerned. While Canadians may not have been ready for such changes following the Le Dain Commission in the 1970s, most Canadians currently view the use of imprisonment and the imposition of criminal records for minor cannabis offences as heavy-handed. Canadians are supportive of the direction proposed in Bill C-45.

Cannabis is harmful, cannabis is easily available, and cannabis is frequently used by young Canadians today. It’s time for us to stop looking the other way.

I thank you in advance for the contributions that this chamber is about to make towards the study of Bill C-45.

Listen to my speech here!

Learn More about C-45