C-45: The Cannabis Act

Hon. Nancy Greene Raine: Honourable senators, I speak today on Bill C-45 and the misgivings I have about our government’s rush to legalize the recreational consumption of marijuana. I’m not against eventually regulating the non-medicinal use of marijuana. I am just very worried that we are moving too quickly and are not prepared for the many unintended consequences that seem certain. That’s why, like others, I feel the study of this bill in the Senate is so important.

The Liberal Party’s 2015 election platform promised to decriminalize marijuana possession, creating a task force of experts in public health, substance abuse and law enforcement. They promised to design a new system of strict marijuana sales and distribution , with appropriate federal and provincial excise taxes applied.

In the rhetoric around the legislation, ministers continually give rationale that they are motivated to protect the health and safety of our youth. I would argue that Bill C-45 goes well beyond what the Liberal platform stated and that it has not received enough input from the jurisdictions that will have to deal with the consequences, especially from municipalities and First Nations.

Most Canadians do not understand the difference between decriminalization and legalization, and they are very different.

While the government’s task force did listen to some knowledgeable experts, there are still many groups and individuals against the changes that are being proposed, groups that include, for example, Drug Free Kids Canada.

Instead of taking responsibility for designing a strict system to regulate the sale and distribution of marijuana, it appears that the government has downloaded this to the provinces and territories, and the result will inevitably be a hodgepodge of legislation and regulatory regimes that will certainly make things more difficult to control.

I will focus today on the main concerns I have if the cannabis legislation is passed as it now stands.

First, the minimum age of 18 is too young. Second, we still do not have any effective and targeted campaigns on the harms of using marijuana. Finally, in the rush to pass this bill, we risk making things worse, not better.

Honourable senators, I think we can agree that we need to establish a minimum safe age for consumption, and it should be consistent for all of Canada. Why is the federal government not taking responsibility for setting the minimum age for all Canadians? It does not make sense to have different ages in different jurisdictions. All Canadian youth deserve to have protection.

The minimum age as set by Bill C-45 is 18, which can be raised if a province chooses. Why does this legislation not have a minimum age that respects the known dangers to the developing brain? Why was the age not set at 25, which would send a strong message to kids and youth that using marijuana at a younger age is not safe? A minimum age of 25 is supported by many, many organizations and individuals with experience in dealing with the issues caused by early use. This is the age that is supported by science, not just by giving in to the current situation.

Personally, I find it very upsetting to hear people say, “Well, kids can get marijuana easily now, so we should just legalize it.” When they say that kids can get it in back of the school yard now, I ask myself, “If the kids know where the dealers are, why don’t the police know, and why are the dealers not being arrested?”

I truly believe that Bill C-45 will make it easier for the dealers to keep dealing and certainly easier for older youth to sell drugs to younger children.

Everything I have read and the many kids I’ve spoken to show that Canadian youth have become convinced that marijuana is not all that harmful. That’s not all Canadian youth. I will say there is a pretty big percentage who understand the harm being done and stay away from marijuana use. But so many of them today are convinced that marijuana really isn’t harmful.

We know our young people are using it more than other countries and that they do not accept that it’s harmful. It’s obvious that they have been influenced by the underground promotion of marijuana. Since the medical use was approved, this acceptance seems to have grown.

By establishing a legal age of 18, we are reinforcing the message that cannabis is not a harmful substance, so I implore senators to support an amendment to change the minimum age. We have a responsibility as senators to provide sober second thought, and it has never been needed more.

Honourable senators, now I ask: What has happened to the promised promotional campaigns to educate children, youth and their families about the harms done by early use of marijuana? Last September, it was announced that there would be $9.6 million to implement an education campaign. Then in October, another $36.4 million over five years was committed.

Last month, Minister Petipas Taylor assured us:

We’re developing tools right now through my department, Health Canada, and there’s going to be a national launch of a program come March.

Well, it’s March 20, and I’ve not seen a new campaign. I’ve asked teachers and parents, and they say nothing new on the messaging has been done, in spite of the impending legalization, which they all feel will make access easier.

I sure hope the launch comes soon, and I sure hope the message will be “marijuana is harmful before age 25” and not just “the legal age for marijuana will be age 18,” which kids will interpret as “it’s okay at age 18.”

We know it’s not okay.

In speaking to school administrators from Washington State, they told me that their legalization was implemented too fast and without proper planning. They told me that the public education piece is extremely important, and that it takes time and lots of money. They feel that Canada has a chance to do it better if we start with good legislation from the national government. The problems they are facing at the state level would have been less, “but,” they warned, “if you don’t do it right, it will be very hard to change later.”

To do it right, we need to make sure we know what our goals are. Do we just want to make sure that what is on the market comes from legal sources and that it’s been tested to make sure it’s not contaminated? Are we so interested in getting tax revenues from the various levels of government that we’re ignoring the market forces that will keep the underground supply going? Will a combination of the two supply sources result in increased targeting of youth? It’s very complicated, and we need to get it right.

Honourable senators, let me tell you what has been happening in B.C. and how out of control it has become. There has always been a drug culture on the West Coast. When the medical use of marijuana was legalized in Canada, the hope was to implement research on how the active ingredients could be used for medicinal purposes. Unfortunately, marijuana dispensaries quickly sprung up without proper controls to ensure that what was being dispensed was actually for medical purposes.

Most doctors, citing a lack of training — rightly so — would not prescribe marijuana when patients asked for it. Dispensaries found other doctors who would prescribe, by phone, for a fee, without even seeing the patient. Certainly this was not a diagnosis. It became a joke.

Now it is a free-for-all, with authorities turning a blind eye and many, many unregulated dispensaries. You can also easily get cannabis products delivered by mail or other means. I’m not sure what is happening in other jurisdictions, but I am pretty sure it is similar to what’s going on in B.C.

Two weeks ago, someone dropped off an envelope at the reception desk for a guest at our hotel. When the intended recipient complained, we learned it had been delivered to the wrong room, where the envelope was opened and the contents eaten, fortunately by adults. I have not seen these products before, but the attractively designed empty packets that I have here were a shock to me. It’s a shockingly strong product, with 120 milligrams of THC in each cherry-flavoured jelly candy, enough to make a child very seriously ill.

When you google “Canada’s best medicinal quality cannabis products,” you will find a very attractive website selling 311 different products online. Under the FAQ link on their website for the question as to whether it’s safe to order from them:

We’re one of 120+ dispensaries in Vancouver (over 300 in Canada) that are NOT operating under the federally-approved medical marijuana system. To qualify under the federal system, you’ll need to get a doctor’s approval and Health Canada’s permission to purchase from one of the 26 licensed producers. City Hall and VPD —

— and this is on their website—

— have allowed dispensaries to proliferate so people can safely access medicine, so long as there are no sales to minors or any organized crime affiliations.

Further, the website states:

There are about 20 mail order sites in Vancouver. Vancouver has been shipping weed in the mail since the 90’s and to date, we know of no-one who has ever been charged with receiving pot in the mail.

Honourable senators, yesterday, a friend showed me photographs of the outdoor market in downtown Vancouver where cookies and candies are freely sold to passersby. Do we really want this to continue? Certainly, the doctors do not want to be dealing with the consequences, especially for children.

Today, I heard on the news— I woke up this morning to this — that small-batch marijuana producers will be able to grow 500 square metres of crops. Honestly, we are fooling ourselves if we think the availability and promotion of legal marijuana will lead to decreased usage, especially by youth.

Colleagues, we need to come to grips with our inability to control existing ways of purchasing marijuana. We need a strong and enforceable federal law, with strong regulations, and this will take time to develop.

I will not be supporting the passage of this bill at second reading. I will support amending the bill to increase the minimum age to 25, to delay the implementation until a strong campaign on the harms of cannabis use has been done, and to put in place laws and regulations to enforce a strong national regime. We are going too far, too fast. We need to take the time to get this right.