Third Reading of Bill C-45, Cannabis Act
Hon. Art Eggleton: Honourable senators, I rise to speak to this bill on our final segment of the third reading debate of Bill C-45, the cannabis act, as amended.
During our study of the bill, your Social Affairs Committee heard from 136 witnesses over the course of 53 hours for a total of 19 meetings. This in addition to considering the reports of four other Senate committees. Needless to say, there was much debate and consideration of arguments.
During this time, I could not help but think that our country likely had similar debates around the lifting of prohibition on alcohol almost a century ago. As it turns out, many of the same concerns we hear today were present then, so let’s go through a bit of history here.
Prohibition of alcoholic products in Canada largely fell to the provinces. By 1917, all provinces but Quebec had put temperance into law.
In my home province, prohibition was instituted in 1916 by the Ontario Temperance Act. This remained in place for about a decade until Conservative Party leader Howard Ferguson won a second term as premier in 1926 by campaigning on a pledge to lift prohibition. That’s sort of a reversal of roles, I would say.
Like now, many feared what a post-prohibition world might look like. When Ferguson called the election, his Attorney General W.F. Nickle submitted his resignation, believing that the party’s alcohol policy would “lead to disaster in which I would not care to share.”
The Toronto Star editorial board stated that:
The elector must decide whether he wishes Ontario to abandon a law which has eliminated two-thirds of the drunkenness in Toronto . . . and substitute a system which has increased drunkenness in Winnipeg 40 per cent, in Calgary 52 per cent —
— and, Senator Mitchell —
— in Edmonton 111 per cent.
Here’s another reversal of roles. The leader of the Progressives, William Raney, stated that: “The Ontario Temperance Act has done much good by reducing temptation to the youth of Ontario by producing a more sober citizen, by lifting homes from squalor, want and crime . . . .”
In spite of these concerns, Ferguson’s Conservative government overturned prohibition by passing the Liquor Control Act, creating the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, known today as the LCBO, which in Ontario has also been given the responsibility to administer retail sales. This system of regulation and government control over the dispensation of liquor has stayed with us for close to 100 years.
What Bill C-45 aims to do is to introduce a system similar to that which Ferguson did in 1927. In fact, if you substitute his references to liquor with “cannabis,” Premier Ferguson may as well have been speaking today, when he said — listen to this: “This legislation is designed not to suppress liquor traffic entirely, but to control it. We’re not here to increase the consumption of liquor. We’re here to protect the people — especially the rising generation — from being poisoned under the vogue of the past few years.”
So, colleagues, it is not my intention here to gloss over the struggle many Canadians experience with alcohol. It would be thoughtless to assert that all the harms associated with it have been eliminated. However, in spite of the warnings, social order in Ontario did not unravel when prohibition was overturned.
Senator Mercer: That was later on.
Senator Eggleton: Yes; it’s unravelling today.
On the contrary, when the chief public health officer looked at Canadian drinking habits in 2015, Ontarians had the second-lowest instance of heavy drinking of any province, as well as one of the lowest drunk driving rates. It must be said that some political leaders in Ontario have found this system so successful that they have suggested, in this election campaign that ends today, that we should put it now in corner stores — alcohol, that is.
I believe we will see similar results from Bill C-45. This, after all, is a harm reduction bill, not a harm elimination one. No one is arguing that cannabis can’t cause harm, like alcohol, if it is used to excess. Rather, what this acknowledges is that our current approach towards the substance is broken. Our prohibitive approach does not deter its use. Canadians, particularly young Canadians, are some of the highest consumers of cannabis in the world.
All prohibition has done is prohibit a reasonable public health approach to cannabis consumption. Rather than buying a regulated product with the appropriate health warnings clearly labelled on the package, Canadians meet on sidewalks, back alleys or high school stairwells to make their purchase. They have no way of knowing the THC content of what they are consuming. Worst of all, prohibition is fuelling an illicit market, and the seller will likely have more addictive, destructive substances on offer.
As our committee was told by Dr. Le Foll, Medical Head of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, CAMH, the largest institution of its kind in this country dealing with mental health:
We should take an overall public health approach, not a criminal law approach. We can greatly reduce the harms of illicit drugs, including cannabis, by focusing on the underlying public health issues. Most of the harms are caused by the laws we have put in place, rather than by the drugs themselves.
This was a point reiterated by the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, who told us that:
In simple terms, it is the criminalization of marijuana, not marijuana itself, that is responsible for these harms.
Making matters worse is the fact that our present laws are unclear. Some Canadians, particularly young ones, think that possession is allowed as long as there is no intent to sell. As one witness said at the committee:
. . . like the clerk at my local convenience store told me last year, having marijuana is legal one day a year as long as it is done on 420 on Parliament Hill.
These misunderstandings can have serious consequences. As recently as 2016, nearly 18,000 Canadians were charged for simple possession, and that is, ultimately, what I would like to speak to finally — that is, keeping Canadians, particularly young Canadians, from acquiring a criminal record for simply possessing cannabis for their own consumption.
This bill proposes to limit personal possession for those under 18 to 5 grams of cannabis without running the risk of being criminalized. I must note this will not allow underage youth to possess cannabis. If they are caught with any amount below this limit, they will almost certainly have it seized and face some kind of penalty determined by the province or municipality, similar to how Ontario sanctions those under 19 who are caught purchasing, possessing or drinking alcohol. They will not face criminal punishment, and that is of the utmost importance.
It was at second reading in this chamber that the government was accused of giving its tacit approval for children to possess up to 5 grams of cannabis. This is simply not true. It is my hope that no Canadian, be they an adult or a young person, will be burdened with a criminal record for simply possessing cannabis. I ask you to think back to when you were young, the peer pressure involved in growing up. It is not far-fetched, nowadays, to imagine one friend asking another to hold some of their weed so that their parents won’t find it. If they have some of their own already, this could put them over the 5-gram limit. Does he or she deserve a criminal record? Absolutely not. This is why Senator Seidman’s amendment, adopted by our committee, was so important: It emphasizes that:
. . . for greater certainty, nothing in this act is to be construed as limiting the operation of the extrajudicial measures that are provided for in the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
Two examples of these extrajudicial measures are a basic warning from the intervening officer and referral to a community program and even, perhaps, telling the parents with written notice.
It is imperative that this act be applied equally to all Canadians as well. During our study, we were told a number of times that there has been an uneven application of the drug laws in our country. Put simply, racialized groups, Indigenous peoples and low-income Canadians receive much harsher punishment than those Canadians who look more like me.
There are several review mechanisms in this bill, as amended. It is incumbent upon those undertaking these reviews to determine whether the sanctions proposed in the cannabis act, both for youth and adults, are being applied fairly to all segments in our diverse society.
Honourable senators, over the course of the debate, I have heard many different opinions on the potential effects of this legislation. The fact is that much of this is uncharted territory, and there will remain a number of unknowns no matter how well we prepare, no matter how well we do our due diligence.
There is one thing I know for certain. That is that our current approach is broken. It needs to be fixed. As a legislator, to suggest that we stay the current course would be wrong. What we have before us today is a step toward a better approach, an important step away from a system that does more harm than good, and that is why I will be voting for Bill C-45.