Legalizing recreational cannabis was a key campaign pledge for the federal government. With the Liberals doggedly sticking to an ambitious implementation date (now just 286 days away), Ottawa needs legislative progress this Fall session for C45 and in provincial capitals across Canada.
As a first step, they scheduled a marathon review of C45 before the Standing Committee on Health (HESA). The condensed but intense study included five full days of testimony from over 100 witnesses.
The testimony is available on ParlVu. Strap in for an invigorating 40 hours.
On Tuesday MOJAG Judy Wilson-Raybould, Public Safety Minister Ralph Gooddale, and new Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor will provide the last Session of witness testimony to C45 before it heads to clause-by-clause review.
Committee Review can be monotonous. But it’s an important last bit of public consultation before MPs rewrite the Bill in clause-by-clause review. This week’s review highlight two issues that must be addressed, two contentious issues that should be watched closely, and hints about what other legislative and policy issues you should be watching for next.
Must be addressed:
Edibles / value added products (VAPs)
Testimony from a wide variety of stakeholders was decisive. Smoking is bad for your health, regardless of what you’re smoking. Legalizing a product that is predominantly consumed by smoking—but not regulating the healthier modes of consumption—is bad policy. Experts from public health, justice and jurisdictions with experience in legalizing cannabis (like Colorado and Washington) told the Committee that with a growing market share, edible and value added products would be purchased from the black market if they were not available in the legal recreational market.
“This has been a very prevalent concern raised by witnesses—that edibles should be part of C45—primarily for public health and because the black market will provide them.” -John Oliver (Liberal-Oakville) to Health Canada ADM
At the end of hearings, the Liberals—who ignored a key recommendation of the Task Force Report to include edibles/VAPs for these very reasons when they wrote C45—had a change of heart. And they promptly pointed the finger at Health Canada for not being prepared.
C45 allots $9.6 million for public education to be spread over 13 provinces and territories over 5 years. This year, Colorado will spend over $30m on public education for a population of just 5.5 million. C45’s plan is not good enough. Not by a long shot.
Public education campaigns need better funding and Health Canada needs to put campaigns in the field ASAP. Most importantly they need to connect with youth to have their desired outcome—no sure thing based on the testimony of the 50 -70 year olds responsible for the programs’ strategy.
You know a message resonated when a government MP criticizes a government Bill to scoop Opposition ideas and own them.
Government MP John Oliver called C45 “quiet on public education” and said it was “imperative” that Health Canada begin public education campaigns immediately.
Issues to watch:
Justice and Policing stakeholders at the federal, provincial and municipal levels testified that home cultivation for recreational pot was a bad idea. Their major concerns were diversion to the black market and the difficulty of enforcing an arbitrary cap on personal production. And they found support with the Tories.
Bureaucrats testified that the Cannabis Act was left flexible at the request of the Provinces who might choose to implement stricter rules around personal cultivation and/or possession limits. On Friday we heard whispers that Quebec plans to prohibit home cultivation. So this might be another decision the federal government punts to provinces to decide.
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police said it was “impossible” that they would be ready for legalization. The Ontario Council of Chiefs agreed. Nine of ten provinces invited to testify at HESA declined. Many have voiced concern about the tight timeline they’re being asked to navigate.
The Conservatives and NDP both tried to extend hearings to hear from industry experts and provincial jurisdictions, both of whom were largely absent from the week’s testimony. But the Liberals shot down both attempts.
The federal government has promised to “backstop” the provinces by allowing LPs to sell direct to consumer in provinces that don’t implement a recreational retail system by July 1. But with growing pressure from stakeholders and opposition to push the implementation date, the legislative progress of C45 through the Senate & the pace of provincial distribution and retail legislation this Fall session will determine if the Liberals stick to July 1.
So coming out of C-45 witness testimony, what are the next steps and big issues to watch in cannabis policy + legislation?
At HESA, the presence of licensed producers was minimal, just two industry groups. A few more witnesses had LP relationships. Even counting those tangentially-aligned to LPs, their interests were just a handful of the 100+ witnesses to testify this week. No witnesses advocated for cannabis as an economic development opportunity.
Policymakers at the federal and provincial levels are relying heavily on the regulatory regimes for alcohol and tobacco as the template for how to handle cannabis. The onus is to ensure policymakers know that cannabis is different. It’s safer than alcohol and tobacco, and this unique plant should not be regulated under the same provisions as those substances just because that’s what would be easiest and most expedient.
The first focus of that differentiation should be with respect to S5 (focused on regulating e-cigarettes and vaping products) to ensure cannabis isn’t grouped in with tobacco products. With the government’s admission that “edibles”/ VAPs should be made available with legalization, the easiest segment to regulate would be vape tech by grouping cannabis in with the e-cigarettes currently under review.
On the judiciary side, the Comeau case is expected to come up at the Supreme Court in the first half of 2018 and have a major impact on the national recreational cannabis market. If Canada’s restrictive interprovincial trade barriers for alcohol are held up, they’ll likely be co-opted for cannabis. Provinces will use the same Non Tariff Barriers (NTBs) to restrict out of province products from retail and use Appellation of Origin standards to give selected local producers massive advantages in distribution, marketing and in-store promotions.
Jeffrey Lizotte is the founder and CEO of Next Wave Brands and Strategic Advisor to cannabisCONNECT x Global Public Affairs – a cannabis specific practice from Canada’s largest private public affairs firm.