March 22, 2018
Honourable Senators, I rise today to speak to Bill C-45, an Act respecting cannabis and to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the Criminal Code and other Acts.
Before I begin, I want to thank each of my colleagues for their tireless work in studying the bill. In particular, I want to recognize the work of my Social Affairs colleague and sponsor Senator Dean, and the critic, Senator Carignan.
Many important issues have already been raised in this Chamber; however, there is nothing more important than the health and well-being of our children. As we consider the complex legislation before us, we have a responsibility as Senators to answer to our satisfaction some fundamental questions raised by this debate…
The government has told Canadians three things:
One, that our youth smoke more cannabis than teenagers anywhere else in the world.
Two, that the problem is getting worse.
And three, that legalizing cannabis through direct sale to persons over the age of 18 is the best and only way to solve the problem.
Many Honourable Senators have already cast doubt on the accuracy of these assertions. And for good reason.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has compiled comprehensive global statistics which show that recent cannabis use in at least 8 other countries exceeds use among Canadian teenagers age 15-16.
The most recent Canadian Student Tobacco, Alcohol and Drug Survey, a national biennial survey conducted in partnership with Health Canada, found that cannabis use among Canadian teenagers in grades 7-12 has declined steadily, falling from 27% in 2008 to 17% in 2014.
And a cross-national peer-reviewed study published in the journal of the Public Library of Science conducted to understand the effects of cannabis legalization on adolescents found that cannabis liberalization in 38 different countries was associated with higher levels of more frequent cannabis use among teenagers.
Nevertheless, the government has made clear that, no matter what the facts, and no matter the gaps in evidence and knowledge, it will stay the course.
The task before us, therefore, must become to ensure that the framework outlined in Bill C-45 minimizes the harms associated with the legalization of cannabis – especially for children and teenagers.
The health hazards associated with cannabis use have been well enumerated in this Chamber. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Canada’s largest mental health and addiction hospital, has stated unequivocally that “cannabis is not a benign substance and its health harms increase with intensity of use.”
We know that while adults are susceptible to the harms of cannabis, teenagers’ developing brains are at greatest risk.
The Canadian Paediatric Society cautions that marijuana use in youth is strongly linked to “cannabis dependence and other substance abuse disorders; the initiation and maintenance of tobacco smoking; an increased presence of mental illness, including depression, anxiety and psychosis; impaired neurological development and cognitive decline; and diminished school performance and lifetime achievement.”
Moreover, we cannot forget that when we talk about cannabis use, we are talking about smoking. The vast majority of cannabis consumed in Canada is inhaled, with nearly 90% being smoked in a joint, a pipe, or a bong. Professor David Sweanor, a noted public health expert at the University of Ottawa, makes this connection crystal clear:
“Smoking involves combustion. Combustion results in unwanted and harmful chemicals being inhaled into the lungs. Although the way people smoke tobacco and marijuana differs in ways such as the amount they smoke and how deeply they inhale, the fact remains that inhaling smoke is a particularly harmful practice.”
If the government refuses to acknowledge that legalization alone won’t reduce the prevalence of cannabis use among adolescents, we must ask ourselves how the legislation before us today specifically addresses those associated harms.
Honourable Senators, the fact is that some of the provisions contained in Bill C-45 are starkly at odds with the government’s stated objective of harm reduction – especially when it comes to our kids.
I recently expressed concerns that cannabis legalization will ‘renormalize’ tobacco use and reduce perceptions of the risk of cannabis smoking.
Honourable Senators, when I think about the independent, non-partisan work that was undertaken in this Chamber just last year on Bill S-5, I find it hard to believe that just a few months later, we find ourselves debating legislation that threatens to undo our progress.
Simply put, this government’s approach to cannabis and tobacco are fundamentally different, despite the fact that the Health Minister sat before us in this chamber and told us they were the same. Honourable Senators are free to draw their own conclusions as to why that’s the case, but the facts remain.
Tobacco regulation has focused on reducing use with eventual elimination. Nearly all forms of marketing are banned. Tobacco packages include graphic warnings, and if the government doesn’t backtrack on the commitments it made in S-5, soon they will be sold in identical plain packages. It is heavily taxed to disincentivize its use. Smoking is banned in all indoor public places.
And it’s working. Canadians are butting out in record numbers – a true public health success story!
In 1980, 1 in 3 Canadians smoked cigarettes. Today, that number is less than 1 in 5.
Compare that with the government’s plan for regulating marijuana, which contains far fewer restrictions than were even recommended by their own expert Task Force.
While it’s true that Bill C-45 prohibits the “promotion, packaging and labelling to cannabis that may be appealing to young persons”, colours and logos will be permitted, and the door to adult advertising is wide open.
Cannabis will be sold at so-called ‘competitive’ prices, with a gram being sold for much less than a pack of cigarettes. Several jurisdictions have already signaled interest in licensing indoor smoking lounges .
Condominium and apartment dwellers are grappling with the prospect of their homes being infiltrated by the odour of second-hand cannabis smoke.
As public health experts have pointed out, the government’s approach to regulating cannabis promotion has far more in common with how we regulate alcohol, an approach that has failed to protect underage users – the exact same population we are trying to protect.
With a patchwork system of provincial restrictions, alcohol manufacturers have become adept at exploiting obvious loopholes.
In some provinces, alcohol billboards appear outside of school property.
Children and teenagers are regularly exposed to enticing commercials on television.
And despite federal rules in place that are similar to those outlined in Bill C-45, alcohol ads appear regularly on Facebook and other social networks. We are kidding ourselves if we think the same thing won’t happen with cannabis.
It is simply not realistic to expect that other bodies will step in and regulate appropriately. Cannabis producers have already seized the opportunity to develop their own guidelines. Voluntary advertising and marketing codes have always proven themselves to be ripe for exploitation.
If we truly believe that the intent of this legislation is – as the government says – to strictly regulate and restrict access to keep it away from children, we have a responsibility to ensure that we learn from our experiences with alcohol and tobacco and stop the aggressive promotion of marijuana products to young people before it begins.
To quote David Hammond, Professor of Public Health at the University of Waterloo:
“I struggle to think of any public health benefit to promoting these products… if the Liberals are serious about public health, they should enforce plain packaging… It’s a good test of their commitment.”
Of course, while the government claims that the designs it unveiled earlier this week qualify as plain packaging, they do not meet the World Health Organization’s plain packaging standards for tobacco. ,
But marketing and promotion are only one side of the equation. Equally important is our commitment to public health education and research. Again, there are critical lessons to be learned from our past success.
The Federal Tobacco Control Strategy has helped reduce smoking rates to an all-time low. Over the past five years, the federal government has devoted over $230 million to protect Canadians, especially young people, from the health consequences of tobacco use. Programs include extensive public education campaigns to prevent children and youth from starting to smoke, helping people to quit smoking, and helping Canadians to protect themselves from second-hand smoke.
The fact of the matter is, when done right, public education works. But this government has already fallen behind before legalization has even begun. Over the past year, we have heard clearly from American experts in states where cannabis is legal, that public education programs must be in place to allow meaningful lead time before legal cannabis is made available.
Yet – despite multiple funding announcements – a comprehensive public health campaign is still not yet underway. Honourable Senators, cannabis legalization was a 2015 campaign promise of this government. It is beyond comprehension that they have waited nearly three years – and counting – to take action on education.
The evidence shows that fewer adolescents today believe that cannabis use has any serious health risks. Without immediate and sustained public education, legalization has the potential to normalize use.
Furthermore, as the Canadian Medical Association has pointed out, government control over the source of cannabis for sale creates the perception that cannabis is safe to consume. Common sense suggests this will increase consumption going forward.
We know what we need to do to improve our chances of success in reducing the harm: high-quality educational interventions, including skills-based training programs, social marketing interventions and mass media campaigns. Education should focus not only on cannabis’ general risks, but also on the specific harms to young people who use it. We cannot ignore the dangers of smoking. Most importantly, we need to do it now.
The government’s legalization agenda is divisive, and there are myriad challenges ahead. But in this moment, we must use the tools available to us to ensure that Canadians and their children are protected as best we can.
Tobacco taught us valuable lessons about how to limit the youth appeal of a dangerous drug. Marketing and promotion must be heavily restricted, and public education must be comprehensive and far-reaching.
These are critical issues which I look forward to examining in greater depth at committee.
In closing, Honourable Senators, let me say this:
We’ve been told time and time again that Bill C-45 is, first and foremost, about harm reduction. If the government continues to insist upon pursuing legalization in order to meet its political commitments, it is our responsibility to ensure that the framework does – in fact – reduce the harm.