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 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.
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, 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 home-grown weed, but the amendment would erase the possibility of legal challenges to their constitutional authority to do so.
Another amendment 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.
Petitpas Taylor has so far refused to say how the government views the many amendments, but it appears to have given its blessing to at least 29 of them, which were proposed by the sponsor of the bill in the upper house, Sen. Tony Dean.
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.
“There will be casualties. There will be mental illness. There will be brain damage. There will be deaths.”
But other 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.