Madam Speaker, as I tuned in to listen to the Senate debate on the cannabis bill, Bill C-45, I was given a stark reminder of why so many Canadians have so little confidence in that unelected, unaccountable body. Certainly it is legitimately questionable whether an institution capable of producing such baseless fearmongering and ignorance has any legitimacy blocking legislation passed by an overwhelming majority in this democratically elected House of Commons.
Disturbingly, in the hours leading up to the final vote on Bill C-45, the Liberal government was forced to quietly swear in two new senators to ensure its passage, even though they were not present for one minute of testimony, one minute of debate, or one minute of review of the bill. However, they cast their vote in lockstep with the government. Some democracy. Some sober second thought.
After studying this legislation for over six months, it is not even clear that all 93 senators actually understood the most basic facts about cannabis, such as the most basic facts about cannabis quantity. While reviewing the act, Senator Nicole Eaton, a Conservative from Ontario, said this:
[F]ive grams is about four tokes. So, in other words, if I’m a high school student—I’m 16—I have four tokes in my pocket, which is under five grams. So you just don’t take it away from me, but I’m allowed to possess it, right?... I’m allowed to have less than five grams, or I’m allowed to have zero grams? This is what I don’t understand.
There is quite a bit the senator does not understand. For the record, five grams of cannabis is enough for some 10 joints. That is far more than four tokes.
Given this statement, l was rather surprised to learn that both Senator Eaton and Senator Frum were forced to abstain from votes on the cannabis bill because they stand to profit from legalization. Senator Eaton declared a conflict of interest over the bill “due to an impending investment in the cannabis industry.” However, until she recused herself, Senator Eaton was an active participant in debates and committee work on legalization, including voting against Bill C-45 at second reading.
For her part, Senator Frum has a property “that will be leased for the purposes of selling recreational cannabis”. After initially indicating her opposition to Bill C-45, she recused herself from debate, deliberation, and voting on the matter.
While it may seem like a contradiction to publicly oppose Bill C-45 while privately investing in cannabis, such behaviour has become disturbingly common in the lead-up to legalization. An emerging group of so-called cannabis capitalists, notably composed of the same police officers and government officials who have spent years prosecuting the war on drugs, has already begun staking its claim to the new recreational market.
Some prominent names include the following.
Kim Derry, who served as deputy chief when the current Liberal member for Scarborough Southwest, the Liberals' point man on cannabis, was Toronto police chief, is now the security adviser for THC Meds Ontario.
Former Ontario Liberal deputy premier, George Smitherman, who once served as the province's health minister, is tied to THC Meds Ontario as well.
Former Liberal prime minister John Turner is a board member for Muileboom Organics, Inc.
Chuck Rifici founded Tweed Marijuana Inc., the country's first licensed provider to go public, while he was chief financial officer of the Liberal Party of Canada.
Former police chief and Conservative cabinet minister Julian Fantino, who once compared cannabis to murder and voted in favour of harsh mandatory minimum sentences for cannabis as a member of the Harper cabinet, has now gone into the cannabis business himself with former RCMP deputy commissioner Raf Souccar.
It is a travesty of justice and a hypocrisy of the highest order that those who fought hardest for legalization may benefit the least from it, while those who spent a lifetime enforcing prohibition are now lining up to fill the boardrooms of the cannabis industry.
Those who put their liberty on the line as activists for legalization, and who, in the pursuit of their defence of cannabis, often took legal liability and got criminal records, not for any violent activity but in their drive to get sensible cannabis policy in this country, now carry the burden of a criminal record for their efforts. Not only have they been shut out, but the federal government has not even offered them a path to participate in the cannabis industry, or to obtain pardons. Are they now supposed to sit back in admiration of the moral flexibility and business acumen of their former detractors?
The inescapable truth is that Bill C-45 is principally about legalizing the cannabis industry, not the plant or its usage. This bill is not about legalization, but about making cannabis less illegal. If this legislation were truly about legalizing the cannabis plant, it would herald the end of criminalization, the end of stigmatization, and the end of the prohibitionist approach to cannabis policy that has been such a failure for almost 100 years. Instead, this legislation would create an incredibly complex criminal framework that legal experts and police chiefs predict will result in more, not fewer, cannabis offences post-legalization.
There have been many opportunities to change course as Bill C-45 worked its way through Parliament. I want to be clear. I do give the government credit for rejecting the most harmful amendments proposed by the Senate, and for accepting the NDP's proposals in a number of ways, including to legalize the sale of edibles and concentrates, albeit not for one year post-legalization. This is unjustified, but it is the best the Liberals would do. The government has also agreed to remove the misguided 100-centimetre plant height limit. Unfortunately, the Liberals have also rejected a number of key improvements to Bill C-45.
I would like to take a moment to focus on some of the Senate's key proposed amendments and the government's response to them.
First is home growing. Based on the advice of the task force on cannabis legalization and regulation, the federal government has proposed to allow the personal cultivation of cannabis for non-medical purposes, with a limit of four plants per household. However, after considering a proposal to ban home growing outright, the Senate chose to amend Bill C-45 to allow provincial governments to ban home growing themselves. Now, this is not a rational or evidence-based approach to cannabis policy. As the College of Family Physicians of Canada put it, “Banning home growing for personal use defeats the purpose of legalization, which is to reduce the harms of criminalization.”
New Democrats believe that, under legalization, the personal production of cannabis should be permitted, similar to the home production of alcohol, such as beer and wine. Personal production would play an essential role in eliminating the illicit cannabis market since it would ensure that individuals who want to consume cannabis can afford it and have access to it in regions without nearby retail storefronts. For many Canadians, particularly those in rural areas who would not be served well by the retail marketing of cannabis, this may be the only way to get access to cannabis.
I would point out that under the Supreme Court of Canada's ruling, medical cannabis users are allowed to grow their own cannabis. In some cases, they are growing eight plants, and they can obtain a licence from another person and grow for that person. Would it not be the height of folly if across Canada one house on a block could grow cannabis, because it is grown for medical reasons, but the house beside it could not, because it is for recreational purposes? That is the height of inequity and it would make a mockery of the law.
I would point out that the health and safety issues generally associated with home cultivation are overwhelmingly the result of large-scale, industrial, illicit growing operations that operate covertly in residential buildings due to prohibition. This can result in damage due to improper ventilation, and the illegal electrical hook-ups pose a fire risk. However, the personal cultivation of four plants would obviously not pose similar risks any more than growing four plants of any other species in the home. I daresay that most Canadians in an average household have more than four plants in their house. By contributing to the dismantling of the illicit market, home cultivation would actually serve to help eliminate those covert industrial growing operations.
Furthermore, I would point out that raw cannabis plants are non-psychoactive. According to University of British Columbia botany professor Jonathan Page, who testified at committee, if anybody, including a child, were to eat the raw bud of cannabis, that person would get the acidic form, which is non-psychoactive. The fresh material is not capable of getting one high. One needs to bake it, heat it, or smoke it in order to obtain that result.
The government chose to reject this amendment because it said, “t is critically important to permit personal cultivation in order to support the government’s objective of displacing the illegal market.” Canada's New Democrats agree.
On potency limits, the Senate also proposed an undefined potency limit for cannabis products. I think the Conservatives are supporting this. On this point, it is important to note that the task force on cannabis legalization and regulation rejected potency limits for a number of reasons. It believed that if prohibited these products would continue to be available on the illicit market. The task force also concluded that there was insufficient evidence even to identify what a safe potency limit would be. The task force emphasized the significant risks associated with the illicit production of high potency concentrate, and instead called on the government to regulate them within a legal market.
I would point out that illicit producers often use flammable solvents, such as butane, to extract cannabinoids from plants, an inherently dangerous process that can also leave carcinogenic residues on the end product. Product safety was also a concern as the extraction process may also concentrate contaminants, such as heavy metals and other impurities in addition to THC.
The government rejected this amendment because “the government has already committed to establishing THC limits in regulations, which will provide flexibility to make future adjustments based on new evidence and product innovation.” While we support the decision to reject this amendment, Canada's New Democrats believe that the government should heed the advice of the task force in this area.
On branding, the Senate proposed deleting a provision of Bill C-45 that currently would allow a person to promote cannabis, a cannabis accessories or a service related to cannabis by displaying a brand element on the thing, provided that it would not be associated with young persons, appealing to young persons, or associated with a way of life that would include glamour, recreation, excitement, vitality, risk, or daring.
The government rejected the Senate's amendment because “the Cannabis Act already includes comprehensive restrictions on promotion.” Again, Canada's New Democrats agree.
Branding restrictions on cannabis in Bill C-45 are there now. Indeed, they are already more stringent than those applied to alcohol. I do not need to remind any of the members of the House of the tragedy that occurred just a few months ago. A young Quebec girl died after consuming a high alcohol volume drink and ended up drowning in a river. If we look at that product, it is definitely marketed to young people, even to children, and there are no similar restrictions on alcohol. The House should look at closing that in the future.
With respect to parental sharing in the home, just as is currently the case with alcohol, the Senate proposed to allow parents to share cannabis with a younger family member of at least 17 years of age in the home. Canada's New Democrats believe this was a sensible proposal and the government was ill-advised to reject this amendment.
We currently allow this approach for alcohol because we understand that parents can be trusted to model responsible behaviour to their children and to make positive choices for their family's well-being. In fact, the New Democrats believe parental education will be a key component of low-risk use of cannabis and should not be criminalized. After the bill becomes law, parents will be able to legally consume cannabis in the house, and if they want to pass a joint to their 17-year-old and discuss responsible use of cannabis, the bill would make that a crime. We do not think that is sensible.
The government has also rejected the Senate's parallel proposal to ensure that sharing among individuals close in age within two years would not be criminalized, and that a cannabis offence carrying a sentence of less than six months would not be used in deportation proceedings for someone without citizenship status.
The government justified its rejection by saying, “the criminal penalties and the immigration consequences aim to prevent young people from accessing cannabis and to deter criminal activity by imposing serious criminal penalties for prohibited activities...”.
If criminalization and the threat of imprisonment or deportation prevented people from using cannabis, then Canadians would not be consuming an estimated 655 metric tonnes of it per year and we would not have the second highest rate of cannabis use among youth between 16 and 24 in the world, and that is when we have full criminalization and life sentences for trafficking.
Contrasting that, a single bottle of liquor is enough to kill a child, and yet I know of no 14-year prison sentence arising from the distribution of beer or liquor. However, a parent who shares a joint with his or her son or daughter who is 17 would be a criminal under this legislation. An adult who possesses 31 grams of cannabis in public would be a criminal. A youth who possesses more than 5 grams of cannabis would be a criminal. An 18-year-old who passes a joint to a 17-year-old friend would be a criminal. An adult who grows five cannabis plants would be a criminal.
This kind of continued criminalization is inconsistent with a rational and evidence-based criminal justice policy and will only serve to reduce the positive impacts of the bill. The prohibitionist approach has been repeatedly discredited by its failure throughout history.
For far too long, we have wasted billions of dollars in resources in the criminal justice system by criminalizing otherwise law-abiding citizens at an alarming rate for simply possessing and consuming cannabis. In fact, we are today. According to Statistics Canada, in 2016, the most recent year of available data, there were about 55,000 offences related to cannabis reported to police and police charged 17,733 people with pot possession.
A recent Vice News investigation found that black and indigenous men and women have been overrepresented in cannabis possession arrests across Canada just in the year since the Liberals formed government, and yet Bill C-45 would preserve the criminalized approach to cannabis, along with the damaging paternalism of the war on drugs.
I want to be clear that from the very beginning Canada's New Democrats have worked hard to reach across the aisle with constructive proposals to improve the bill. These changes included the following: providing pardons to Canadians saddled with a criminal record for offences that will no longer be offences under Bill C-45. This amendment was ruled outside the scope of Bill C-45. However, given the Prime Minister's previous statements, it is shocking that the Liberal government would structure a so-called cannabis legalization bill in such a way that pardons could not be included through amendment.
We proposed empowering provincial governments to create parallel production licensing regimes in order to give provinces the flexibility to implement legalization in the manner best suited to their jurisdiction. For example, this would have allowed provinces to let craft growers, small scale producers, and outdoor growers compete against the federally licensed corporate giants.
As said earlier, we proposed the legalization of edibles and concentrates, which are among the safest ways to consume cannabis and are the growing part of the market. This would allow Canadians and entrepreneur of businesses across the country to provide safe, regulated products to customers instead of allowing this to be provided underground.
We proposed decriminalizing the penalties section in line with the Tobacco Act. We proposed that the legalization should take a regulatory approach with significant fines for offences rather than criminal ones.
One of the purposes of Bill C-45, as laid out in section 7, is to “reduce the burden on the criminal justice system in relation to cannabis.” Penalties in the bill should be consistent with that stated intent.
I am disappointed that the government chose to reject these vital proposals, but I am heartened that the bill at least contains a mandatory review of Bill C-45's operation in the next Parliament. I view this as a tacit admission by the government that it knows the bill contains problematic sections that will need to be fixed.
To be clear, Canada's New Democrats will support this motion and this legislation because we have fought for an end to prohibition ever since the 1971 LeDain Commission. The bill before us today is an important step forward but it is far from perfect.
After the last election, Canadians rightfully expected that the Liberals would produce a timely and fair cannabis law. As it now stands, the federal government has left the heavy-lifting of legalization to the provincial, territorial, municipal, and indigenous governments. The bill will lead to the emergence of a patchwork approach to legalization that will shut out the most long-standing cannabis activists, the folks who have spent decades honing their craft and providing world-leading medicinal cannabis to patients across Canada.
Some provinces have chosen to impose a government retail monopoly, some have chosen to shut out existing compassion clubs, and some provinces are pushing to ban home growing outright. This is disappointing. It is a lost opportunity. It is a betrayal of the clear promise that the Liberals made to Canadians in 2015.
Done properly, an appropriate legal approach to cannabis can achieve impressive benefits economically, technologically, and medicinally. The New Democrats will continue to work to provide the best cannabis legislation in the world for Canadians.