In a historic vote, Parliament has changed Canadian law to lift the 95-year-old prohibition on cannabis and free millions of adults to openly smoke, ingest or grow the drug without fear of a criminal record.
The adoption in the Senate of Bill C-45, the Cannabis Act, means that a legal, multibillion-dollar industry is set to appear in Canada, which will join Uruguay as one of the few countries where cannabis is legal nationwide.
Illegal since 1923, cannabis for recreational use is expected to go on sale in early or mid-September, with cabinet setting a final date after the legislation receives royal assent. In the meantime, the act will allow licensed producers to start shipping dried cannabis to approved retailers across the country and to set up mail delivery.
The government has said its goal is to remove a profitable product from the hands of organized crime, educate children and youth on the dangers of the drug and give adults a safer supply.
The Conservatives in the House of Commons and the Senate had vigorously opposed the legislation, which will fulfil a Liberal promise from the 2015 federal election. The measure was supported by the NDP in the House and a majority of independents in the Senate.
In the last stage of the legislative process, senators adopted the legislation in a vote of 52-29 on Tuesday evening.
“It’s been too easy for our kids to get marijuana – and for criminals to reap the profits,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted on Tuesday night. “Today, we change that. Our plan to legalize & regulate marijuana just passed the Senate. #PromiseKept”
While they bowed to the wishes of the House of Commons, some independent senators were angry that the federal government rejected their proposal to allow Quebec and Manitoba to ban home cultivation of cannabis.
“Even though I am convinced of the benefits of legalization, I would have wished for it to be done while respecting the point of view of all parties,” independent Senator Raymonde Saint-Germain said before voting for the bill. “We have witnessed a lack of openness and flexibility on the side of the federal government.”
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said his government still plans to ban growing the plant at home for recreational purposes because police have warned that homegrown cannabis could be diverted to the black market.
“We have the right to make our laws. We’ll make them and we want people to abide by them because we think it’s in the best interests of all,” he said.
The federal government is scheduled to offer an official reaction to the adoption of the legislation on Wednesday.
The next steps will include releasing the regulations for the cannabis trade, including approving edible products within a year, and working with Indigenous communities to smooth out the negative consequences of the transition to legal cannabis.
In addition, the government will start to look for a way to clear the criminal records of hundreds of thousands of Canadians who were convicted of simple possession under prohibition.
The Conservatives confirmed that if they win the next election, they will not return to prohibition.
“Once it’s been implemented, it’s like the toothpaste will be out of the tube. And so it will be left to the Conservative Party to clean up the mess,” Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu said, citing concerns about traffic deaths related to drug impairment and workplace safety.
Proponents of legalization have been advocating for looser drug laws in Canada for decades, but the government opted for a strictly regulated market for cannabis.
Critics have argued the changes will promote increased use of the drug among all age groups, boost the number of impaired drivers and endanger young consumers.
Jeremy Jacob, president of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries, welcomed the new law, but said the legal regime will still have much to improve upon. Mr. Jacob, whose organization represents about 65 illegal marijuana shops in Western Canada, called for separate retail access for medical cannabis patients and removing the excise tax on this medicine.
“We’re happy that it’s happening – we think it’s the best thing for our society to destigmatize this plant, normalize it and use it for all its benefits,” said Mr. Jacob, who co-founded Vancouver’s illegal Village Bloomery dispensary just weeks before the Liberals swept to power in 2015.
Bill C-45 was shepherded throughout the legislative process by Liberal MP Bill Blair, a former chief of the Toronto Police Service, who is the parliamentary secretary to the Ministers of Health and Justice. In a recent interview, he said Canadian law is simply catching up to the fact that thousands of Canadians smoked cannabis daily.
“When a third of the population is ignoring the law, you really have to look at the law,” he said.
Bill C-45 was heavily influenced by a 2016 report from a nine-member task force chaired by former Liberal cabinet minister Anne McLellan, which consulted widely in Canada and looked at the experience of Washington state and Colorado, where cannabis use is legal.
“This is a big change for this country,” Ms. McLellan said in an interview. “The change is as much a change in thinking, in the psychology around almost 100 years of prohibition and criminalization of this plant called cannabis.”
Brent Zettl, who headed a Saskatoon-based company that grew marijuana under federal regulations for the past 16 years, said implementing the massive policy shift will be challenging.
“There still is a lot of people within the government who simply don’t agree with it, and it’s because there are so many uncertainties that we’re not really ready for,” said Mr. Zettl, whose CanniMed Therapeutics Inc. lost a takeover battle with rival producer Aurora Cannabis Inc. earlier this year. “As we roll this out there’s going to be lots of pain everywhere.”
Mr. Zettl said Canada should have reformed its medical system first to allow patients to buy their products through pharmacies – not just Health Canada’s mail-order system. As the bill stands, patients will have to continue to buy cannabis products through the mail or use recreational retail outlets.
Quebec’s Minister Responsible for Canadian Relations said it was “extremely disappointing” that Ottawa has not respected the province’s ban on home growing, which was passed into provincial law last week and will go ahead.
“Federalism allows for solutions to differ from one region of the country to the other,” Jean-Marc Fournier said in a statement. “The federal government would thus have been better advised to respect the different approaches that will allow us, in 3 or 5 years, to agree upon those that will have brought the best results.”
All producers of cannabis will have to be licensed by Health Canada, while provinces will oversee the distribution of the dried cannabis and oils to the retail market. Canadian adults (the minimum age varies by province) will be able to carry up to 30 grams, with stiff new penalties for providing the drug to minors.
Revenues from the legal market are expected to be used, at least initially, to cover costs related to policing, enforcement, setting up public distribution networks and creating public-awareness campaigns. Cannabis will be subject to an excise tax of $1 a gram, or 10 per cent on sales of more than $10, with Ottawa keeping 25 per cent and the rest going to provinces and municipalities.