Great. Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Good morning, everyone. Let me say it is a great pleasure to be back in the parliamentary precinct. I must say I am amazed at the transformation of the Wellington Building. It's a very impressive building. It didn't exist in its present form when I was here.
As you've already heard, I'm Anne McLellan. I served as chair of the task force on cannabis legalization and regulation. I'm here today with Vice-Chair Mark Ware to share a brief overview of the work and the recommendations of the task force. Our mandate was to consult and provide independent advice on the design of a new legislative and regulatory framework.
The outcome of this work is our report, “A Framework for the Legalization and Regulation of Cannabis in Canada”, which we provided to the Ministers of Justice, Public Safety, and Health, as well as to all Canadians, on December 13, 2016. Our report contains more than 80 recommendations. Our advice details safeguards that we believe are important to achieve the objectives set out by the government to better protect the health and safety of Canadians by regulating access to cannabis.
We spent five months travelling across the country and hearing from Canadians, including representatives of indigenous communities, parents, youth, activists, growers, and patients who use cannabis for medical purposes. We spent time with experts and organizations, which shared diverse perspectives and helped us to appreciate the complexity of legalization and regulation. We met with officials from provincial, territorial, municipal, and indigenous governments, who emphasized the need for close collaboration amongst all levels of government.
We travelled to Colorado and Washington and spoke to officials in the Government of Uruguay—the only other country to have legalized access to cannabis—to hear directly from those who have had first-hand experience enacting systems for legal access to cannabis. We also received close to 30,000 responses from experts, organizations, and Canadians who took time to respond to our online questionnaire.
Through your committee hearings, you will, like us, hear a variety of thoughtful, informed, and passionate perspectives on myriad issues relating to legalizing and regulating cannabis. These perspectives will in some cases contradict one another. In considering the experience and expertise of those with whom we consulted, we sought to strike a balance between implementing appropriate restrictions in order to minimize the harms associated with cannabis use and providing adult access to a regulated supply of cannabis. Further, we wished to reduce the scope and scale of the illicit market and its social harms.
We also concluded that it is appropriate to proceed with caution. We are only the second nation to move forward in this way, and we were told by those who have gone before to expect surprises. While there are important lessons to be learned from other jurisdictions, designing and implementing a national Canadian system is a unique undertaking. This balanced and cautious approach, with a focus on protecting public health and safety, helped dictate where the task force ultimately landed on some of the more controversial issues.
I would like to highlight two issues that help illustrate our approach.
It came as little surprise to the task force that setting a minimum age for the purchase of cannabis was the subject of much discussion during our consultations. The task force's deliberations on the issue reflected this, and we gave serious consideration to the various recommendations, ranging from 18 to 25 years of age.
We recognized the increased risks associated with use of cannabis at an early age. Research suggests that cannabis use during adolescence may be associated with negative effects on brain development, yet we also know that adults 18 to 24 are the segment of the population most likely to consume cannabis. Nearly 30% of that age cohort reported past-year cannabis use in 2015. Setting the bar for legal access too high could result in a range of unintended consequences, such as leading young adults to continue to purchase cannabis on the illicit market where, among other things, there are no quality controls.
We heard—and you discussed these earlier with public servants—that the criminal prohibitions that exist today and have existed for more than 90 years have had little success in preventing access to cannabis and dissuading people from its use. In 2016, 80% of cannabis-related offences were for possession, which in turn led to 18,000 charges for cannabis possession. We also heard about the negative stigma of arrest and the potential lifelong consequences for those young adults who have criminal records for simple cannabis possession.
In proposing a federal minimum age of 18 and respecting the interests of provinces and territories to set a higher age if they choose, we aimed to balance the need to protect minors with the objective of reducing the illicit market. Based on our study, the task force also concluded that an age limit alone was insufficient to discourage and delay cannabis use. We recommended that robust preventive measures such as sustained public education along with smart regulation would better control access and use by young adults and mitigate health risks.
A second issue that garnered significant debate, with compelling arguments both for and against, was the issue of home cultivation. On the one hand, we heard concerns about the health and safety risks of home cultivation, the challenges of providing adequate oversight, in particular as it related to children, and the potential ease with which it could be diverted into the illicit market. However, it became clear to us that these concerns pertained most particularly but not exclusively to large-scale clandestine grow operations, not small-scale home cultivation.
We also heard arguments in favour of allowing home cultivation, premised on the belief that it can be done safely and responsibly with appropriate limits and safeguards. Ultimately, the task force recommended allowing a limited home cultivation of no more than four plants per household along with a prohibition on dangerous manufacturing processes, reasonable security measures, especially in relation to children, and oversight by local authorities. In our view, this recommendation accounted for the noted health and safety concerns and provided a framework for enabling small-scale cultivation for personal use by law-abiding adults much like what we currently see with the home brewing of alcohol.
In no way should our recommendations on home cultivation be interpreted as condoning large-scale clandestine grow operations, which we all have seen reported in the media and which cause significant risks to the health and safety of Canadians, including law enforcement and other first responders. On both these issues—age and home cultivation—we heard divergent and passionate views, as you will. Our recommendations reflect a belief that Canada, in embarking on this new path, must be both smart and pragmatic.
We must also look to those who have already gone down the path of legalization, few though they are. It is encouraging to examine the experience of Colorado, one of the trailblazers in cannabis regulation. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and Attorney General Cynthia Coffman recently wrote to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to provide a progress update that dispelled some of the misconceptions surrounding legalization.
They noted that, despite the fears of many, cannabis use among youth following legalization has seen no statistical significant increase, and I'm happy to report the same is true in the state of Washington when you look at its most recent stats. This was due in large part to strong regulatory provisions to help prevent use, such as age verification requirements and prohibitions on advertising, packaging, and products that appeal to children, and a robust public education campaign that highlighted the consequences of use.
Similarly, while initial data demonstrated a rise in cannabis-related emergency visits, the most recent data in Colorado shows a reversal in this trend. This reversal is, again, the result of targeted public education campaigns regarding the risk of use, and the necessity for safe use and storage. For example, all edible cannabis product packaging in Colorado must be childproof and resealable.
While there is no guarantee that Canada will experience similar outcomes, it is nonetheless encouraging to see that some of the concerns raised initially around cannabis legalization do not appear to be borne out by the most recent evidence in Colorado. Canada can learn from these experiences that through sound policy, robust public education, and enforcement of the regulatory regime created, many of the perceived risks of legalization can be mitigated.
I have often said that it will be critical that the government remain vigilant and be prepared to course-correct as evidence and experience indicate. There will be unforeseen challenges and unintended consequences. Only through careful and close monitoring and a willingness to be flexible and adaptable will it be possible to respond effectively to issues as they emerge.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, I look forward to questions and comments.