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Bill C-45 (Cannabis) - Third Reading

I am the final speaker this evening, as I understand it. I won’t be taking my 45 minutes.

I want to start by offering a few thanks. The first is to my independent senator colleagues, who, over the last seven months, joined me in a journey of learning about cannabis and its problems and the challenges across the country.

It has been an interesting journey. As late as yesterday, one or two of my colleagues were still landing on where they wanted to vote, which is evidence of keeping an open mind and not shutting it down too early in the process. I thank them for that.

I thank Senator Eggleton, who was and has been an absolutely superb chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology. It was given an enormously difficult job to filter the work of the other four committees on a hugely complex bill. Senator Eggleton, thank you on behalf of all of us. You did a fantastic job.

Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

Senator Dean: I want to thank all of our senators here for participating in the debate extensively today, especially in this format. We know it worked in medical assistance in dying. We talked about it for a number of months, and we’ve used it again here. I think everyone here has been reminded again of the fact that planned and organized debate with themes helps us to follow and prepare and to know what is coming, but more importantly, it helps those people outside of the Senate who want to participate in our work, who want to see what we are doing and who want to follow along. Many of you will have seen your Twitter sites light up with those who are responding almost instantaneously to things happening in here. That’s fantastic. With cameras coming in here in the next little while, we’re going to have to be at the top of our game, and I think we will be doing much more of this.

I want to thank the chamber staff who support us, and I want to thank staff of the Senate who support all of us in this place. But I want to express particular thanks to my staff. I have two staff. All of the stuff that you have received, all of the briefing materials and all of the advice that many of you have received has been generated by Amanda McLaren and Lauren Thomas. They have done an absolutely superb job.

Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

Senator Dean: I want to thank public servants in the federal government and particularly those at the Department of Health and the Department of Justice who, to use an English term, have taken a bit of stick over the last few weeks — inappropriately so, in my view. We are blessed, as parliamentarians in this country, to be supported by a professional and non-partisan public service that is among the best in the world, if not the best in the world. They support us, and they serve us daily. They serve Canadians daily, and they earn our trust every day. They deserve our respect, and I thank them for the work they have done in supporting my colleagues and me as we’ve worked hard on this bill.

I’m going to single out Mr. Eric Costen, the head of the Health Canada’s cannabis secretariat. He has been on our cannabis journey since the early days of medical cannabis and he brought all of that expertise into the recreational cannabis discussion. He is one the finest public servants that I have worked with.

I am going to thank one more person. This is a person who has travelled with me not only on this professional journey in terms of the sponsorship of Bill C-45 but also on a personal journey that I didn’t expect to be taking that started last November, coincidentally, when the bill came into the chamber, namely, my wife, Marie Boutilier, who is in the chamber up there and has been supporting me wonderfully.

Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

Senator Dean: One of the questions I’m most often asked as sponsor of Bill C-45 is why on earth did you take that on? The answer is simple: When I saw a complex piece of public policy wrapped up in legislation heading toward this place, I wanted to be part of it. I saw opportunities and not problems. I saw the opportunity to work with that piece of legislation to improve it, to make it the best that it could be and to make it work in the most efficient and effective way that it can for Canadians. I have not been disappointed. This has been a fantastic journey for me, and I’ve never regretted it for a moment.

I want to share my perspectives on that, though. Having been around public policy, public administration and politicians for the last 25 years, I’ve noticed that every now and again a government — and it can be a government of any political stripe — decides to embrace, tackle and attempt to resolve a pressing social or health policy challenge. Make no mistake. That’s what the government did in choosing to think about legalizing and regulating cannabis. The government was supported by an expert task force, yes. It was a campaign commitment, yes. But this was not an easy thing to take on for a government. It wasn’t done on a whim. You don’t do these things without expending a significant amount of political capital. Any health and social initiative is complex by its nature, and when things are complex, it’s easy to snipe at them. I’ll be frank and blunt about that. It’s easy to pick away at them. It’s not simple like prohibition. It’s not simple like “Just say no.” It’s complex.

Over the last several months, we have had the ability — those of us who wanted to engage in it — to take that legislation apart piece by piece, to understand it, to wrestle with it and to understand the challenges that it is trying to address and the solutions that it is trying to achieve.

We know that the bill is tackling known harms. There is no difference between us on the harms. Perhaps the only difference is that we have heard alleged in this place that we’ll see many harms resulting from the passage of this bill. There is not one of those harms that isn’t in existence today, pre-cannabis reform. They are all happening right under our noses, and we know that — the health and social impacts in terms of criminalization, particularly of our Indigenous and other racialized Canadians, and in excessive numbers. The massive illegal market is burgeoning right under our noses.

Here is what the government did: The government chose to take the lid off that, to surface those problems and to start a national debate across country about cannabis and what is happening with cannabis in this country right now. That was a brave political move on the part of this government, and it will be one that is historic and that will help, not hinder, Canadians.

In the last several months, we as parliamentarians — and I’ll put it this way — have held a significant responsibility in our hands to look at that legislation, to examine it, to make the very best of it and to give of our best advice, as seasoned parliamentarians in some cases and seasoned policy-makers in others. We know this is an approach to tackling problems that were ignored for years. Senator Mercer reminded us of the Nolin report. It’s interesting that I haven’t heard one of Senator Nolin’s colleagues refer to him in the last seven months. He was a champion of progressive drug reform, 46 years later and on from the Le Dain report.

We’ve been engaged here in bringing existing problems with cannabis out of the dark and into the light. That’s what we have been doing here, and we have been doing a good job of that.

We know it is not working right now. We know that prohibition doesn’t work. As we move toward the vote, I’m really clear about the opportunities flowing from Bill C-45 for young Canadians. I support it.

Here is what I have been worrying about over the last few weeks: I worry more about the implications and impact of voting no. That’s what would concern me, given all we’ve learned. As Senator Nolin said himself 16 years ago, legalization and regulation is better and safer for young Canadians than prohibition is. I don’t think Senator Nolin’s conclusion has changed one bit; if anything, the problems he was talking about have only worsened while we have pretended that prohibition is working.

I’m going to finish; I don’t have much more to say. As we consider voting on this bill, what do we know about voting no? We know that a vote against the legalization and regulation of cannabis in this country is a vote for continued prohibition, with continued criminalization of young and older people, particularly those who can least afford it — those who are the most marginalized and disadvantaged in this country.

We are saying, “You take care of yourselves. We like prohibition better. We feel more comfortable with prohibition. You take care of yourselves.” We are saying, “The health harms? Well, you know, we’ll kind of shut the door and look the other way while young people continue to be harmed by cannabis.” We’re saying that, “Having waited, I think we like prohibition more, with a burgeoning, growing $6 billion illegal cannabis market in this country in which the product of that illegal market is not tested for potency or contaminants and carries no warning labels, no potency labels, and doesn’t come in childproof bags.” We know those products are available widely across the country now, and we know there will still be a wider range of products available than will be available in the narrow, limited offerings in a cautionary approach to cannabis legalization, which is being proposed by the government.

I’ll just say this again: I would rather not go back there. I would rather not allow those harms to continue, on both the social side and the health side. I would like to join other jurisdictions like those in the U.S. that have seen a significant diversion. In Colorado, there’s been a 50 per cent diversion from its illegal market to the legal market. It does work.

So I’m saying I’m voting yes for Bill C-45, and I’m asking those who still consider voting no to think very hard about the implications and consequences of doing that.

Thank you so much.

Listen to my speech here:

Learn More about C-45