June 11, 2018
Honourable senators, I rise to speak to Bill C-45 at third reading.
At the outset of our study, I expressed my concern that the government had failed to answer some fundamental questions about its rationale for legalizing marijuana. Despite some positive improvements advanced by Conservative senators, it is abundantly clear that Bill C-45 does not align with the government’s claim that it is taking a public health approach for the simple reason that cannabis legalization threatens the health and safety of Canadians.
After hearing the evidence presented, it is difficult to understand why the government is doing this at all, and in such a drastic and irreversible way. Legalization should be a last resort if incremental approaches to address cannabis-related harms fail. Instead, the government has chosen to conduct a grand experiment on the Canadian public, an experiment that cannot be undone.
I do not doubt that our existing cannabis laws unfairly penalize users, particularly among marginalized populations. I also have no doubt that large numbers of young people are already using marijuana today, to their detriment. But it does not logically follow that the solution to these problems is to create a multi-billion dollar predatory cannabis industry overnight, with the provinces taking on the role of drug dealers and the federal government taking its cut.
The government claims its policy choices are evidence-based, yet they appear to be decidedly disinterested in an incremental approach that would allow for information to be gathered. Canada is only the second country in the world, after Uruguay, to legalize marijuana. We are sorely lacking in baseline data, despite a last ditch effort by Statistics Canada, to help us fully understand the health and safety impacts of proceeding to full-scale legalization in one fell swoop.
There was nothing to stop the government from bringing forward a comprehensive public education program when they were first elected in 2015 in order to prepare Canadians for legalization, but they didn’t. Likewise, there was nothing standing in their way from decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana or pardoning those with past convictions, but they declined.
The gradual introduction of cannabis liberalization policies would have allowed the government to act immediately to address some of the negative aspects of our existing laws while gathering key data and educating the public.
The government’s failure to take an incremental approach can be explained in part by the fact that the government is not actually serious about reducing cannabis use, especially among adults. This became abundantly clear when I pressed Parliamentary Secretary Bill Blair on why the government had failed to set any targets to reduce the number of Canadians who use marijuana. He could not provide an answer. However, a few weeks later, Health Canada belatedly announced that it would set targets to reduce the rate of cannabis use, but only among Canadians aged 15 to 24.
Setting targets to reduce cannabis use among young people is a positive development to be sure, but it lays bare the truth that the government expects the number of Canadian adult cannabis consumers to increase and that it’s perfectly comfortable with more people using the drug.
It’s inevitable given the evidence that marijuana legalization contributes to the normalization of its use and sends the message that it’s safe. Moreover, the frequency of use among existing cannabis users will increase, which is the greatest predictor of harm. A new report from Deloitte estimates that after legalization, cannabis users will buy marijuana more often than they do today and will spend as much as 68 per cent more on their purchases. This projection aligns with empirical evidence from other jurisdictions that cannabis liberalization policies, including legalization, lead to increased frequency and intensity of use among existing users.
Health Canada officials, experts from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, just to name a few, acknowledge that frequent cannabis users are most vulnerable to its harms. There are serious doubts that legalization is the path to harm reduction. Yet, by enabling a multi-billion dollar, profit-driven industry, already a powerful lobby in its own right, the government has tied the hands of future lawmakers if and when its experiment fails.
The Leader of the Opposition in the Senate spoke yesterday in this chamber about how critical aspects of legalization, those with the greatest impact on the health and safety of Canadians, have been relegated to the regulatory process. Many questions related to packaging, promotion and product potency will be decided in regulations, leaving senators with little assurance that the appropriate safeguards will be put in place.
I’m heartened that the Social Affairs Committee accepted my amendment to require that future regulations for new classes of cannabis, such as edibles and vaping products, be brought before Parliament for review, but it does not change the fact that regulatory decisions with the greatest impact on public health have been far from transparent.
The rapid commercialization of the industry should also give us pause when considering the bill’s discretionary powers with respect to advertising. We know cannabis companies will make every effort to circumvent restrictions on product promotion, which is why five public health organizations in Canada, including the chief medical officers of health, the Canadian Public Health Association, the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Paediatric Society and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health all recommend a complete ban on advertising. This is yet another example of a government, which claims it is taking a public health approach, ignoring the advice of every leading public health organization in the country.
Last week a majority of senators in this chamber voted to close a loophole that gives cannabis companies a back door to advertise marijuana. Among the bill’s partial restrictions, it contained an exception that would have allowed cannabis manufacturers to produce T-shirts, hats, iPhone cases and other products displaying their brand logos. This practice is known as brand stretching or backdoor branding and is clearly at odds with the government’s stated goal of protecting public health.
Without a ban, clothing and other promotional items emblazoned with cannabis company logos will be seen by young people and will send the message that marijuana is safe. They are a form of advertising, plain and simple, which Bill C-45 purports to ban.
With restrictions on other forms of marketing, companies will inevitably spend their advertising dollars on these products. We know this because it is happened with tobacco and it is already happening with cannabis.
Since this chamber passed the amendment, it is no surprise that the cannabis industry has voiced their opposition, but they are crying wolf. Companies can differentiate their products through branded packaging, branded cannabis accessories and in-store informational product displays.
Highly regulated distribution through select retailers gives these companies a captive market, and they don’t need any help from backdoor branding to sell more marijuana.
We would do very well to remember our decades long fight with big tobacco to get Joe Camel and other cigarette logos out of sight. Over 70 countries have outlawed brand stretching for tobacco in accordance with the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The practice is effectively banned in Canada by a patchwork of provincial restrictions, but these victories for public health were hard won.
We have a golden opportunity to learn from past mistakes. Legalization offers a blank canvas, and lobbying from the cannabis industry is only getting stronger. Producers have not been shy about plans to creatively exploit the advertising restrictions in the bill. A ban on backdoor branding responds to this threat with best public health practices.
When Bill C-45 is returned to the other place, the government should accept the Senate’s amendments. When a majority of senators identify a loophole that contradicts the purpose of legislation, we are serving our purpose as a chamber of sober second thought. If the government’s motivation for legalizing marijuana is truly about public health as opposed to profit, they will accept the amendment to close the backdoor branding loophole along with the many other important improvements to the bill brought forward by senators from all parties and groups.
Despite assurances of review, I remain deeply concerned that legalization will set us down a path from which it will be impossible to return. Jonathan Caulkins, an internationally renowned drug policy researcher, had this to say about the future of cannabis legalization:
. . . there’s a good chance that people in 25 to 40 years will look back and shake their heads and ask, what were you thinking? Why did you think it was a good idea to create an industry of titans to market this drug?
As we prepare to vote at third reading and send the bill back to the other place, we must ask ourselves if we have done all that we can do to safeguard Canadians from an untested policy and a profit-hungry market.