After agreeing to a June 7 deadline to vote on the federal government's Cannabis Act, the Senate of Canada is continuing debate on the bill. That debate, along with examination of The Cannabis Act by a number of Senate committees, will almost certainly result in proposed amendments to the bill.
Senate debate from earlier this week gives some hints as to what those amendments might involve — or, at the very least, what aspects of Bill C-45 have senators most concerned.
Tuesday's debate on Bill C-45 was dominated by members of the Senate Conservative caucus, but it was Independent Quebec Sen. André Pratte who kicked things off. Pratte asked Sen. Peter Harder, who represents the Trudeau government in the upper chamber, to tell the government to set regulatory limits on the THC content in legal cannabis products. (Harder said he would do so.)
Quebec Liberal Sen. Serge Joyal brought up the potential conflict between the federal government and the government of Quebec, which plans to completely ban home cultivation of cannabis for recreational purposes after legalization.
Joyal suggested it might "be better to amend Bill C-45 to recognize the capacity of a province to ban, for a period of time, the cultivation of four plants of cannabis in private residences."
As Tuesday's debate continued, Conservative Sen. Richard Neufeld called C-45 "one of those once-in-a-lifetime bills," but said he's worried about "too many unanswered questions and unintended consequences." Neufeld asked whether employers "have the tools to ensure their employees are not impaired on the job." Bill C-45, he said, "could create a legislative vacuum with regard to random testing and lead to more litigation and uncertainty in the law."
The senator from British Columbia went on to address a recurring concern in the Senate Conservative caucus: the provision in Bill C-45 that would allow youth to possess up to five grams of cannabis without risking a criminal record.Advertisement
"My oldest grandson is nine," said Neufeld. "In a few years he could pack around five grams. I find it amazing that we would have a bill that says we want to keep it out of the hands of young people, yet at 12 years old he could pack around five grams of it." (As Sen. Tony Dean later pointed out, many provinces and territories have already "removed any access to a five-gram allowance" for youth.)
Neufeld also referenced the "gateway drug" theory of cannabis, describing himself as a recovering alcoholic who got started on "beer, the lighter stuff, the gateway, cheap wine."
"I believe that marijuana is much the same as alcohol, and it’s something that will get our kids started on it," he said.
Alberta Conservative Sen. Betty Unger stuck with the youth angle on cannabis legalization, offering a metaphor for "the developing brain on marijuana."
"If someone attempts to rewire the electrical system of your car by altering a system that is complex, delicate and carefully designed, you would be alarmed and probably outraged because you would know that your car will never again run properly," said Unger.
Senators, said Unger, "appear to be ready to appease the Trudeau government and agree with legalizing this noxious weed which is known to cause permanent, irreversible damage to our most vulnerable groups, our children and our young adults."
Instead, Unger concluded, "we, the select few with sober second thought, should not consider saying 'yes' to this odious legislation until we, on behalf of all Canadians, have all the answers. I believe that, at a minimum, an intensive four-year education blitz should begin now before any government contemplates legislation."
Independent Ontario Sen. Lucie Moncion offered a counterpoint to some of the Conservative senators' concerns about youth cannabis use, arguing that "the elimination of cannabis use among young people is wishful thinking."
In her speech, Moncion said she recognizes "the need to legalize cannabis."
"Despite that we can be against the legalization of cannabis for recreational purposes, the fact remains that products are accessible on the illicit market and that consumers have easy access to them," she said. "By legalizing recreational cannabis, we allow the creation of a regulated industry that meets high-quality standards and over which we have some control."
Still, Moncion had some concerns about the specifics of Bill C-45, including whether legal pricing will be able to compete with the black market. She also suggested C-45 needs work in terms of regulating home cannabis cultivation.
"The current version of the bill does not set out any restrictions with regard to growing these plants in lockable secure areas either indoors or outdoors or with regard to the visibility of the plants from the street or from neighbouring homes," said Moncion. (Some provinces are already implementing such restrictions on their own.)
Echoing the message from his Conservative caucus colleagues, Saskatchewan Sen. David Tkachuk also said Canadians can afford to wait on legalizing cannabis.
"Canadians have lived under the current legal regime for many decades, so what is the emergency? I'm confident that we can manage to wait longer to ensure that public safety is protected," he said.
Delaying the passage of C-45 in order to first pass "legislation mandating alcohol and drug testing in federally regulated, safety-sensitive positions," said Tkachuk, would be better.
"That may delay the passage of the bill," said Tkachuk.
"So be it. I can live with that. What I can't live with, and I don't think anybody here can, is to be in the position of having voted for this bill and seeing those regulations coming in only after it becomes law, not in response to the bill but in response to a tragedy."
New Brunswick Conservative Sen. Carolyn Stewart Olsen also said Bill C-45 is being pushed through too quickly.
"In pursuing legislation like this, the government is further cultivating a culture of permissiveness around drugs and intoxicating substances," she said. "The government clothes these proposals in the language of reducing incarceration, but what we are really talking about is a government that wants to push massive social change on Canadians."
"The rush is incomprehensible," said Olsen. "Within the space of a year we have gone from debating supervised heroin injection to pushing cannabis use nationwide. I'm not sure Canadians want Canada to be known for its liberal drug laws."