The Se­nate, gov­ern­ment and cannabis: Why the Bill C-45 de­bate mat­ters


On June 7, the Se­nate voted to pass Bill C-45, the pro­posed rules related to the le­gal­iza­tion of cannabis in Canada. The Bill is now back with the House of Com­mons along with a se­ries of amend­ments rec­om­mended by the Up­per Cham­ber.

A num­ber of the amend­ments, in­clud­ing a ban on the home grow­ing of cannabis, are par­tic­u­larly con­tro­ver­sial. Com­men­ta­tors have noted some sen­a­tors’ highly re­stric­tive, al­most an­tag­o­nis­tic, ap­proach to the leg­is­la­tion. At times, the Se­nate re­view seemed to al­most dis­re­gard the two years of pub­lic and expert con­sul­ta­tion that have gone into the development of this frame­work.

While it ap­pears likely that the House and the gov­ern­ment will ul­ti­mately re­ject a num­ber of the amend­ments, it seems an op­por­tune mo­ment to re­mind our­selves why this process be­gan and what we hoped to achieve. Among those ob­jec­tives were the pro­tec­tion of youth and the elim­i­na­tion of the il­licit cannabis mar­ket. Are we on course to achiev­ing those goals? What, if any­thing, stands in the way of the safe, re­spon­si­ble and thriv­ing le­gal cannabis mar­ket Justin Trudeau’s gov­ern­ment first en­vi­sioned?

The Se­nate re­view and de­bate re­minds us how im­por­tant education is to map­ping out a rea­son­able and rea­soned path for­ward; a path that helps us achieve our orig­i­nal goals, while es­tab­lish­ing a vi­able com­pet­i­tive mar­ket that bal­ances com­mer­cial and so­cial suc­cess.

They also re­mind us that fear should not write leg­is­la­tion. Two spe­cific ex­am­ples come to mind.

First, one of the is­sues the Se­nate grap­pled with is pro­posed lim­its on the po­tency of THC, the psy­choac­tive agent in cannabis. Some pub­lic-health pro­po­nents sug­gest that these lim­its will help pro­tect con­sumers from the dan­gers of in­gest­ing mar­i­juana. This line of rea­son­ing, while well in­ten­tioned, is also mis­guided and short-sighted.

In fact, it is phys­i­o­log­i­cally im­pos­si­ble to smoke or in­gest enough THC to have a lethal ef­fect; es­ti­mates sug­gest you would need to con­sume 20,000 to 40,000 times the nor­mal dose. By com­par­i­son and on average, al­co­hol is es­ti­mated to be lethal at 10 times the ef­fec­tive dose.

What lim­it­ing THC does, how­ever, is make it in­fin­itely harder for the le­gal cannabis in­dus­try to com­pete with the black mar­ket. It is only through ef­fec­tive com­pe­ti­tion – that is, a mar­ket­place that can of­fer con­sumers the full range of prod­ucts they are look­ing for – that we can de­crease the ap­peal of il­licit sources. Imag­ine re­plac­ing all avail­able al­co­hol with only light beer and you be­gin to see the chal­lenge. This in ad­di­tion to a lim­ited prod­uct of­fer­ing for the first 12 months of the pro­gram (ed­i­ble cannabis prod­ucts will not be le­gal un­til at least 2019) and we are fight­ing a black mar­ket foe with both hands tied be­hind our backs.

Sec­ond, if we are to suc­cess­fully in­tro­duce Cana­di­ans to le­gal cannabis from trusted sources, cannabis pro­duc­ers and mar­keters must have a rea­son­able de­gree of flex­i­bil­ity to in­form con­sumers of their choices when it comes to cost, qual­ity and prod­uct at­tributes. From a pol­icy per­spec­tive, this means that Bill C-45 must al­low for re­spon­si­ble use of cre­ative de­sign and pack­ag­ing.

Starv­ing the il­licit mar­ket means com­pet­ing with it. Un­for­tu­nately, the amended frame­work pro­posed by the Se­nate places strict re­stric­tions on the pro­mo­tion of le­gal cannabis that are clearly coun­ter­in­tu­itive to our col­lec­tive man­date to elim­i­nate the black mar­ket. We know well-pack­aged and branded prod­ucts ex­ist at il­le­gal dis­pen­saries. We also know brand development and dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion will only be­come more im­por­tant as cannabis con­sump­tion moves away from dried flower and to­ward ed­i­bles, oils and top­i­cals, as we’ve seen in more ma­ture mar­kets such as Colorado and Ore­gon.

If con­sumers are to be in­formed enough to have a pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence with cannabis prod­ucts (the dif­fer­ence be­tween a Sa­tiva’s ac­ti­vat­ing ef­fect and an Indica’s se­dat­ing qual­i­ties, for in­stance), they also need ba­sic in­for­ma­tion that may well be pro­hib­ited if the pro­posed amend­ments stand.

With­out a doubt, a well un­der­stood, di­verse recre­ational cannabis of­fer­ing is in the best in­ter­ests of com­pa­nies that in­tend to sell cannabis. But if we re­fer back to our orig­i­nal goals – youth safety and starv­ing the black mar­ket – we see a deeply in­ter­con­nected so­lu­tion. We can’t si­mul­ta­ne­ously shackle this new in­dus­try from a pro­duc­tion and mar­ket­ing point of view and ex­pect it to achieve our more uni­ver­sal – and most im­por­tant – ob­jec­tives.


Cannabis plants grow in a MedRe­leaf fa­cil­ity in Markham, Ont. To suc­cess­fully in­tro­duce Cana­di­ans to le­gal cannabis from trusted sources, mar­i­juana pro­duc­ers and mar­keters must have a rea­son­able de­gree of flex­i­bil­ity to in­form con­sumers of their choices in terms of cost and qual­ity.

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