Provinces, Indigenous groups, municipalities, opposition parties, law enforcement, and others are calling on the federal government to delay its plans to legalize cannabis in Canada. However, the government says it has no intentions to delay from its intended target of July 2018.
Police say they need more time to train officers and come up with reliable drug-impaired driving testing equipment. Provinces and territories are saying they need more time to come up with rules for managing distribution and retail sales—both online and brick and mortar—and municipalities want more time to come up with rules to manage those retail stores and their locations, as well as address issues like home grown cannabis and public consumption.
Opposition parties in the House are calling the Liberals’ stated goal of having legislation and regulation in place by July 2018 a ‘rushed’ and ‘arbitrary’ deadline, saying the government is shutting down debate by implementing time allocation at second and third reading as well as report stage, ignoring concerns and pushing the legislation through.
To move the legislation forward through the House to the Senate, the government introduced time allocation earlier this past week to limit further debate at report stage and third reading of the bill. Opposition to the use of time allocation was opposed by all the NDP, Greens, Conservatives and the Bloc, but passed 170-130 because of a Liberal majority in the House. Editor's note: C-45 passed third reading in the House on Monday, Nov 27 with 200 in support and 82 opposed.
The Liberals used time allocation in June of this year at second reading of the bill, as well, after more than two days of extended debate. The bill had, at the time of time allocation, already been debated for 31 hours in the House since being first introduced on April 13. It also spent more than 5 full days in the House Standing Committee on Health, which heard from over 100 witnesses.
“I have heard a lot of talk about delays from the other side, requests to delay this legislation further, and that we are rushing ahead so quickly. -Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, Liberal MP, Beaches—East York
While Conservatives focus their arguments against the ‘rush’ to legalize around concerns from law enforcement in dealing with drug-impaired driving and enforcement of new possession and cultivation and retail rules, some in the NDP have also said there is a need to delay legalization by as long as a year or more, to ‘get it right.’
One of the NDP’s lead voices on the legalization file, Health Critic Don Davies, says the party is still calling for immediate decriminalization of small, personal amounts of cannabis, but believes the government needs to take more time to consult with various stakeholders like licensed producers, dispensary owners, illicit growers, and others, and take the time to pass a better legalization bill.
“It is a good bill. It could be better. After 100 years of criminalization of cannabis, we can spend a few months to ensure the legislation works. Again, one of the NDP's primary purposes was to make the legislation align with the purposes of the act. There are several examples where the legislation does not do that.” -NDP Health Critic Don Davies
“It is a good bill,” said Davies in the House on Nov 22. “It could be better. After 100 years of criminalization of cannabis, we can spend a few months to ensure the legislation works. Again, one of the NDP's primary purposes was to make the legislation align with the purposes of the act. There are several examples where the legislation does not do that.”
“Why the rush,” the health critic asked the day prior. “Why not take an extra three or six months, or even make it July 1, 2019, so that the government could keep its promise to legalize cannabis this term, but we could actually take the time to make sure we have excellent cannabis legislation?”
However, the Liberals argue that after dozens of hours of debate, as well as messaging for over two years since they won the election with legalization as a prominent campaign promise, that they are not rushing anything, and have taken considerable time crafting and debating the historic legislation.
Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, a Liberal MP who has been a vocal legalization proponent for many years now, says these claims of the bill being rushed are not true.
“I have heard a lot of talk about delays from the other side,” Erskine-Smith said earlier this past week in the House, "requests to delay this legislation further, and that we are rushing ahead so quickly.
“I would note that Colorado and Washington, in November 2012, passed resolutions at the ballot. The electorate called for legalization. In Colorado, 13 months later, businesses opened to sell cannabis. In Washington, 21 months later, businesses opened to sell cannabis. Given that it has already been more than 24 months since our election, does it seem like a rush here in Canada?”
“The Liberal government is not proceeding slowly on the legalization of marijuana. It is not proceeding carefully on this file. The government has been warned by many groups that it is moving too fast.” -Kevin Sorenson, Conservative MP for Battle River—Crowfoot, AB
Kevin Sorenson, Conservative MP for Battle River—Crowfoot, AB, said the Liberals’ use of closure (time allocation) ignores these stakeholder fears, and he predicts legalization will be a mess.
“The Liberals moved closure so they could rush this legislation through. Many different groups are telling them to slow down, and they went in the opposite direction and decided to rush it. That is what the government is trying to do. It is trying to bring forward full legalization of marijuana.
“With full legalization, the Liberals know the fears. They know the concerns around rushing. They know the adverse effects it would have on children, and they know that others who are most susceptible to the dangers of marijuana would now have greater access to it. This bill is not about decriminalization.
“The Liberal government is not proceeding slowly on the legalization of marijuana. It is not proceeding carefully on this file. The government has been warned by many groups that it is moving too fast.”
Marilyn Gladu, Conservative Health Critic who has been very vocal in her opposition to legalization, said the use of time allocation was outrageous.
“It is absolutely outrageous that this debate is being shut down. From the beginning, the government has been rushing ahead to this arbitrary date, which is 223 days away. The Liberals always talk about how they are consulting, but unfortunately they are never listening.”
After third reading, the bill then will make its way to the Senate where it will repeat a similar process of first and second reading, then being sent to a Senate committee, then report stage and third reading, before being sent back to the House and receiving royal assent.
Any amendments made to the bill by the Senate at committee or report stage will have to be sent to the House for approval. The House and Senate must pass the exact same bill before it receives royal assent.
The senate is expected to be a long process, with the Senate being known as the chamber of ‘sober second thought,’ as well as lacking the Liberal majority used in the House to move things along as desired.
With about six months of sitting days left, there is still considerable time for both passage by the Senate, as well as proactive legislation by provinces, territories and municipalities. However, the concerns of many of these stakeholders and this timeline are not without merit.
While claims that this bill is being rushed through after this much time might be a stretch of the imagination, predictions of the difficulty in implementing a legalization regime by July 2018 aren’t unfounded.
The timeline for creating distribution and retail systems at the provincial and territorial level is not an easy challenge. Establishing a supply chain and distribution for that supply is no easy task for a province or territory, as is establishing retail stores and all the logistics behind regulating these stores.
Supply issues are already well known in the medical cannabis space, and with a relative lack of approved producers in Canada, this will likely occur in the legal rec market as well. Even with Health Canada ramping up the approval process for licensed cannabis producers significantly in the past year, as well as adjusting rules to make these approvals easier and now introducing new proposed regs for small producers and processors, having these new producers in place and supplying cannabis by July 2018 is unlikely.
Law enforcement concerns are not just rhetoric, either. While concerns about cannabis-impaired driving may be exaggerated, and people are already using cannabis and driving and have been for some time now, it’s not irrational to expect an increase of use, especially among new consumers unfamiliar with the effects of cannabis. While edibles won’t likely be legal on day one, ingestible cannabis oils will be, and they pack the exact same effect as edibles, which can be very strong and can be delayed for several hours.
Even if impairment detection doesn’t prevent drugged-driving, even a handful of accidents on the road where cannabis is determined to be a factor could have a negative impact on the success of legalization. At the very least, more public education programs around dosage and effect and impairment are arguably needed. While the government has set aside millions of dollars for cannabis education, all that has come out so far has been relatively uninspiring campaigns.
The Liberals’ goal of legalization being in place by July 2018 is not an end date. It’s a start date. The system will undoubtedly have flaws in the beginning, and will be an ongoing work in progress. You don’t dismantle nearly a century of prohibition overnight. Whether this means further delay beyond July 2018 is needed is a matter of opinion (and one's politics), but expecting it to work perfect on day one will be setting oneself up for disappointment.
Featured image by A. Yee.