Canada takes a major leap in legalizing recreational cannabis

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Did you hear that?

That was the sound of a nation-wide sigh of relief from Canadian weed lovers. Today (June 7), the Senate approved the amended Bill C-45, the Cannabis Act, bringing the country one step closer to federally legalizing recreational cannabis.

After seven months of meetings, hearings, debates, witness testimony, and amendments, the full Senate gathered in parliament to give their final say on the highly contentious regulations.

The bill was reviewed by five separate committees and took on nearly 50 changes over the last several weeks. The vote, which took place at 6:01 p.m. PDT, passed 56 to 30 with one abstention.

Unexpected shifts in parliament

All 32 conservative senators have traditionally voted in a block, opposing the bill at every step in it’s legislative journey. Today’s move was no different, with the exception of two senators who didn’t vote.

Both Sen. Linda Frum and Sen. Nicole Eaton announced earlier in the day they would be abstaining, citing personal financial interests vested in legalization. Both have vehemently opposed the bill in the past.

Another last-minute change to the proceedings was the appointment of three new independent senators. Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau swor in Sen. Mohamed-Iqbal Ravalia, and today added Sens. Pierre Dalphond and Donna Dasko shortly before the vote.

Conservatives didn't pull any punches

A few conservative senators weren’t going to let the bill pass without making their grievances known.

Sen. Betty Unger began her statement by implying the Liberal government had manipulated the process in their favour. She said the group charged with championing research for the bill, the cannabis task force, was composed of individuals who stood to gain from legalization.

She continued on to call the legislation “reckless” and “irresponsible” adding that at no point did the government take a science-based approach to determine the bill’s impact on Canadians.

“I do not believe that history will speak kindly of the political masters and sycophants who are enabling this legislation, this dangerous drug, and history will surely condemn people in this place [the Senate] who support this legislation who simple know better,” she said.

Several of her colleagues echoed similar warnings in their messages, either drawing focus to the plight of Canadian youth or the lack of Indigenous consultation.

Sen. Doyle asked whether cannabis users would still feel the need to even protect underage Canadians from smoke exposure when it becomes legal, going so far as to pose the question: “Is it conscionable to have our innocent children born into a society that has a lack of concern for their well-being?”

Strong response from Indigenous senator

Sen. Lillian Eva Dyck responded to comments made by Sen. Carolyn Stewart-Olsen on Wednesday (June 6).

Just one day shy of the vote, Stewart-Olsen told Indigenous senators they had “the hammer” that could have stopped or severely limited the bill. Instead, she said, they chose to cave to the government.

Dyke, who is chair of the senate standing committee on Aboriginal peoples, fought back, saying although Stewart-Olsen apologized, upon reflection, she felt personally attacked. She called the comments “undeniably condescending”.

“We did not drop the hammer. We used it judiciously and in a precise and focused action with great aim, and achieved our objectives without undue collateral damage,” she said.

The sponsor’s final message

After six hours of speeches and questions, Sen. Tony Dean, the bill’s sponsor, began his closing remarks.

Dean made a point of warmly thanking all of the individuals involved in the drafting and debate of the legislation, from the senators to chamber staff.

"We are blessed as parliamentarians to be supported by a professional and nonpartisan public service…they support us daily...They earn our trust every day and they deserve our respect," he said.

In one final attempt to sway lingering opposition, he urged his colleagues to consider the detrimental impacts of voting against the bill.

“We know that a vote against legalization and the regulation of cannabis is a vote for continued prohibition, continued criminalization of young and older people, and particularly those who can least afford it…those who are the most marginalized and disadvantaged in this country,” he said.

“The products of the illegal market are not tested for potency or contaminants, they carry no warning labels, potency labels, they don’t come in childproof bags, and we know that those product are available widely across the country now.”

Dean added that returning to a state of prohibition would only encourage the existing harms present in the illicit market.

The next steps

Despite today’s landmark victory, it isn't smooth sailing just yet. The legislation will now go back to the House of Commons where the amendments will be considered.

The majority of the changes are technical clarifications, like translation incongruities and definitions, but a handful have the power to drastically impact the legal landscape.

One amendment that passed recently would ban brand-stretching, meaning cannabis companies won't be able to advertise on things like t-shirts, hats, and phone cases. Conservative senators like Sen. Judith Seidman argued that “swag” inherently appeals to children and would lead to further curiosity regarding cannabis.

Another amendment guarantees provincial power in creating stipulations regarding home cultivation, even granting the ability to impose an outright ban.

Once Bill C-45 passes through the House of Commons, it returns to the Senate for a final vote. If this happens, Canada will make history and become the first G7 country to federally legalize recreational cannabis.

Health MinisterGinette Petitpas Taylor has said once the bill has fully passed through the legislative process, the provinces and territories could need up to three months to implement the retail sales of legal cannabis. 

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