The Senate has approved the Trudeau government’s landmark legislation to lift Canada’s 95-year-old prohibition on recreational cannabis – but with nearly four dozen amendments that the government may not entirely accept.
Bill C-45 passed easily in the upper house late Thursday by a vote of 56-30 with one abstention, over the objections of Conservative senators who remained resolutely opposed.
“It’s a historic night for Canada in terms of progressive health policy and social policy,” said independent Sen. Tony Dean, the bill’s sponsor in the upper house.
“We know that prohibition doesn’t work. I think this is a brave move on the part of the government, frankly, to take on a tough and controversial issue.”
But the pot saga is not over yet. The bill must now go back to the House of Commons, where the government will decide whether to approve, reject or modify the changes before returning it to the Senate for another vote.
Once passed, Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor has said that provinces and territories will need two to three months to prepare before retail sales of legal cannabis are actually available.
Most of the Senate’s amendments are minor – including some 30 technical amendments proposed at the government’s behest.
But about a dozen are significant, including one to allow provinces to prohibit home cultivation of cannabis if they choose, rather than accept the four marijuana plants per dwelling allowed under the bill. Quebec and Manitoba have already chosen to prohibit homegrown weed, but the amendment would erase the possibility of legal challenges to their constitutional authority to do so.
Dean said he has no idea if the government will support that change. But he pointed to the fact that it was proposed by a fellow independent senator to counter Conservative accusations that the independents are actually partisans doing the Liberal government’s bidding.
In the end only one independent senator, Josee Verner – who formerly sat in the Conservative Senate caucus – voted against the bill.
Conservative suspicions were further fuelled by the fact that two senators appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday were sworn in Thursday in time to vote for the bill – something Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos termed “deplorable.”
But Donna Dasko, one of the two new senators, said she’s spent years researching issues related to drug use and felt knowledgeable enough to vote on the bill without having sat through witness testimony and hours of debate.
Sen. Yuen Pau Woo, leader of the independent senators’ group, said one had only to look at the amendments proposed by the independents – including the home cultivation one – to know the Tory accusations of partisanship aren’t true.
Among other amendments is one that would impose even more stringent restrictions on advertising by cannabis companies, preventing them from promoting their brands on so-called swag, such as T-shirts and ball caps.
Yet another is aimed at recognizing that marijuana is often shared socially. It would make it a summary or ticketing offence for a young adult to share five grams or less of cannabis with a minor who is no more than two years younger and it would allow parents to share it with their kids, as they can with wine or alcohol.
Prior to the vote, senators spent almost six hours giving impassioned, final pitches for and against legalization.
Conservative Sen. Dennis Patterson, who represents Nunavut, said “easy availability of this mind-numbing drug” will be devastating in remote areas where vulnerable Indigenous populations are already ravaged by addiction, mental health problems, violence and suicides.
“I believe, and I do fervently hope I’m wrong, that we will pay an intolerable price that we will regret,” Patterson said, excoriating the government for inadequate consultation with Indigenous communities.
“There will be casualties. There will be mental illness. There will be brain damage. There will be deaths.”
However, Indigenous senators, who had initially called for a delay in implementing legalization, ended up supporting the bill – a key move that proved to isolate the Conservatives. They were mollified by an eleventh-hour written commitment Wednesday by Petitpas Taylor and Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott to provide more funding for Indigenous mental health and addiction treatment services, special help for Indigenous businesses to navigate the licensing process to grow marijuana and consultation on jurisdictional and revenue-sharing issues.
After the vote, independent Sen. Murray Sinclair said he and other Indigenous senators “held out for a commitment that we think is far better than any amendment that could have been made to the legislation.” Any Conservative suggestion that they capitulated should be taken “with a grain of salt,” he said.
During the debate, independent and independent Liberal senators argued that almost a century of criminalization has done nothing to stop Canadians, particularly young people, from using marijuana illegally and, thereby, creating a lucrative black market dominated by organized crime.
“There is one thing I know for certain,” said Liberal independent Sen. Art Eggleton. “Our current system is broken. It needs to be fixed.”
Independent Sen. Andre Pratte said C-45 takes a pragmatic approach to regulating cannabis that is preferably to continuing the failed war on drugs.
“Do we take a deep breath, close our eyes and stick with a demonstrably failed, hypocritical, unhealthy, prohibitionist approach of the past or do we move forward, eyes wide open, and choose the alternative? … I choose to open my eyes, rather than put on blinders,” he said.