In a 56-30 vote, the Senate of Canada has passed the Cannabis Act after a rough ride through the upper house. The bill passed differs from the version the House of Commons agreed to in November, 2017. Over 40 amendments have been made to the bill, some of which are unlikely to be accepted by the Commons. If the House rejects the amendments, the bill will be sent between the Chambers until an agreement can be reached. Although this brings Canadians one step closer to legal cannabis, there is still a long and bumpy road ahead before sales commence.
An Act respecting cannabis and to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the Criminal Code and other Acts, more commonly referred to as the Cannabis Act or Bill C-45, was introduced in the House of Commons by the Minister of Justice on April 13, 2017.1 Canadians continue to use cannabis at some of the highest rates in the world.2 In 2015, 21 per cent of youth and 30 per cent of young adults reported using cannabis within the last year.3 With this legislation, the Canadian Government’s goal is to: legalize, strictly regulate, and restrict access to cannabis; keep cannabis out of the hands of Canadian youth; and prevent organized crime from profiting off the illegal cannabis market.4
As the Cannabis Act progressed through the House of Commons, three significant amendments were made. First, the government removed its plan to cap marijuana plants maintained in a person's home to 100 centimetres in height as the requirement would be too difficult to enforce.5 Second, regulations under the Cannabis Act must be enacted one year from the passage of Bill C-45 addressing edible cannabis products.6 Third, the government agreed to review Bill C-45 in three years after it comes into force.7 Bill C-45 received final approval on November 27, 2017 from the House of Commons, passing by a vote of 200 to 82.8 The bill was then sent to the Senate for approval.
Bill C-45 in the Senate
Bill C-45’s journey through the Senate has not been smooth. It passed first reading on November 28, 2017. After much contentious debate and near defeat, the bill passed second reading on March 3, 2018 and was sent to the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology for study.
After study, the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, presented its report, which was adopted by the Senate on May 30, 2018.9 This report contained a series of 34 amendments, some of which were drafting changes and some were substantive changes. The most controversial amendment introduced language that would grant provincial and territorial governments the power to prohibit homegrown cannabis.10 The Government has indicated that this amendment is not acceptable, creating a potential conflict with the Senate.11
The third reading of the bill commenced May 31, 2018. Throughout the debate, senators proposed additional amendments, some of which were defeated and some adopted. Notably, in the beginning of May, some Indigenous senators called for the bill’s implementation to be delayed by a year to ensure adequate consultation.12 In the end, they did not bring forward an amendment after the Government promised money for mental health and addiction services, consultation on revenue sharing, and aid for Indigenous businesses to navigate the cannabis licencing process.13 Ultimately, there were 45 amendments, including the provision allowing limitation of home grown cannabis, to Bill C-45.
The final day of debate and voting on Bill C-45 as amended was June 7, 2018. The landmark legislation to lift Canada’s 95‑year‑old prohibition on recreational cannabis was passed by a vote of 56 to 30 with one abstention.14
Though passed, the House of Commons is not obliged to accept the bill as amended. The amended bill will now head back to the House of Commons for debate.15 The House can choose to accept or deny any proposed amendments. If accepted, the bill is sent for Royal Assent. If rejected, the Senate is informed and it can accept the decision of the House, reject the decision of the House and insist on its amendments, or it can further amend what the House has proposed. The Senate communicates their decision to the House and the process repeats until there is agreement on the text of the bill. There is also an option for a conference to be called between the House of Commons and the Senate should there be no agreement, but this practice has fallen into disuse.16
What happens next?
If a final text is settled on by both Chambers, the next step for any bill is Royal Assent. This usually happens quickly after a bill has been passed, however, Royal Assent does not mean the bill and its provisions are in force. That date is usually fixed by the bill itself or on a date set by the Governor in Council (essentially a date chosen by Cabinet).17
Another consideration is that although the framework laws have been passed, the myriad of federal regulations that govern the regime still need to be put in place.
Health Minister Petitpas Taylor has said that once the bill is passed, provinces and territories will need two to three months to prepare before retail sales of legal cannabis are actually available.18 This delay is because Bill C-45 depends on reciprocal implementation of provincial sales and distributary regimes and their associated regulations. To date, only Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Ontario have bills that have reached Royal Assent. These also need to be implemented and have regulatory frameworks created, which could lead to additional delays.
Essentially, Canadians have a long way to go before they can legally buy and consume recreational cannabis.