Cannabis legalization is coming. Canadians voted for it. And Senators—who are now debating this important piece of legislation—should not stand in their way. That being said, I am convinced that continued oversight will be key to the success of legalization.
At this point, the case for legalization is clear—prohibition simply isn’t working.
The federal government has argued that a market for recreational cannabis would help reduce use among young people, improve the handling of public health issues, and work to eliminate the illegal market.
But developing sound public policy is no easy feat.
Ending decades of cannabis prohibition is riddled with complexities, both legal and social. Moreover, there’s little precedent to work with. Canada is only the second country to attempt cannabis legalization on a national level—the first being Uruguay, a country with the same population as Toronto.
Since the legislation cleared the House of Commons, senators have pored over it—Bill C-45 was considered by six separate Senate committees, each inviting a host of subject-matter experts.
Here’s one of the main takeaways: our understanding of cannabis, from a public health perspective, is evolving, and will continue to evolve, after recreational cannabis is legalized. The science just isn’t conclusive yet. Committee witnesses reported that prohibition made proper research almost impossible.
In fact, new studies published over the course of the Senate study of C-45—particularly relating to impacts on the developing brain and mental health in general—call some of the more alarmist testimony into question.
As a result, Senators’ approach ought to be cautious, as opposed to restrictive, in our recommendations. By that same logic, senators are suggesting better oversight, monitoring and evaluation once the legal market is rolled out. As our understanding as a society of the effects of cannabis increases, better policy solutions will become clearer.
That’s why the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science, and Technology recommended the creation of an independent task force, made up of content experts and tasked with monitoring the rollout of this legislation.
Moreover, access to non-partisan insight will benefit how Canadians, academics, and other countries come to understand this exceedingly bold step.
Senators and others have done their best to identify and improve on problem areas in this legislation; however, it would be naive to suggest it is perfect. It is reasonable to expect that we will learn more about the benefits and drawbacks of legalization through lived experience.
A third-party task force would serve as an accessible repository of the information we collect and promote the sharing of best practices in cannabis policy in a manner that is accessible to all levels of government.
By the same token, there is no justifiable reason for further delay, as some are calling for. Cannabis use is widespread in Canada. A new approach is clearly needed to help address the very real issues of substance abuse and mental illness which we often see associated with—though not necessarily caused by—cannabis use.
While there will surely be bumps along the road, I am convinced the government is serious about the public health approach set out in Bill C-45. However, this will only work if we can identify and adapt along the way. If Canadians can’t keep an eye on what we’re passing, the honest objectives of this bill may go up in smoke.
Frances Lankin is a senator representing Ontario. She previously served as Ontario’s Minister of Government Services, Minister of Health and Minister of Economic Development and Trade.
This article appeared in the June 5, 2018 edition of The Hill Times.