OTTAWA — With a looming June deadline to vote on the federal government’s cannabis bill, Senate committees are recommending a raft of changes to the new law, and even suggesting the Liberals delay legalization.
Asked about the possibility of delaying the bill on Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said only that the government is focused on legalizing marijuana because “the current system hurts Canadians.”
“Legalization is not an event, it’s a process,” he said. “And that process will continue.”
The Trudeau government was hoping to legalize recreational use of cannabis by July, but has already indicated that deadline would be pushed back by several weeks to give provincial governments and police authorities time to prepare for the new law.
Three committees released reports recommending amendments to Bill C-45 this week — everything from placing limits on how much marijuana people can keep in their homes to reserving one out of five production licences for producers on Indigenous land.
On Tuesday, the Senate aboriginal peoples committee called on the government to delay the bill by up to a year to allow for more consultation with Indigenous groups. The committee says more time is needed to develop a system to share cannabis excise tax revenue with Indigenous communities, and to allow them to restrict access to legal marijuana if they so choose.
In a separate report, some senators on the legal affairs committee also recommended a one-year delay before the bill comes into force, to allow police forces more time to prepare.
“This is not tinkering, the way I look at it,” Liberal Sen. Jim Munson said during a Wednesday hearing of the Senate social affairs committee, which will decide how to amend the bill based on the recommendations from other committees. “Is it really feasible that we’re going to be able to amend this thing… or are we looking down a longer road because of the many, many concerns we’ve heard?”
In response, Liberal Sen. Serge Joyal, chair of the legal affairs committee, said tight timelines mean senators are “trying to do the most we can do with a straitjacket that is very tight on our body.” The Senate has agreed to vote on the amended bill by June 7, before sending it back to the House of Commons.
During the hearing, Senator Lillian Dyck, chair of the aboriginal peoples committee, said more time is needed because First Nations can’t currently “opt out” of cannabis legalization. “If the community wants to pass some kind of bylaw that restricts it in some way, that has to be hammered out with the federal government before this becomes law,” she said.
Her committee’s report also recognizes the potential of cannabis as an important revenue stream for Indigenous people. It recommends that the finance department negotiate agreements for sharing cannabis excise tax revenue with First Nations, as it has with the provinces, and that Health Canada reserve 20 per cent of cannabis production licences for operations on Indigenous lands.
“If you want First Nations to get ahead, then you have to provide them with equal opportunity for the economic opportunities that arise,” Dyck said.
But the idea of pushing back legalization got a lukewarm reaction from some senators. “If we keep delaying it, we just keep the illegal market wide open,” Munson said in an interview. “I just feel that we should get on with it, basically.”
Independent Sen. Frances Lankin also expressed doubts about a delay. “What happens with the illicit market if we stop this short?” she said during the hearing. “There are a lot of things to consider.”
The recommendations facing the social affairs committee are wide-ranging. In its report, the legal affairs committee said the authority of provinces to prohibit the possession and cultivation of marijuana needs to be clarified. Currently, Quebec and Manitoba plan to ban home cultivation, but the committee suggested that could be subject to a legal challenge since the federal law allows individuals to grow up to four plants.
The report also recommended including a limit to the quantity of dried cannabis that people are allowed to keep in their homes, something the current law doesn’t specify.
And the committee raised concerns about the treatment of minors under the new law, pointing out that young people could face criminal charges for possessing small amounts of marijuana that would be legal for adults. The report recommends that “no harsher sanctions be applied to youth than are applied to adults.”
In a separate report, the Senate defence committee recommended that the federal government reach an agreement with the United States concerning the questions that border officers ask travellers regarding cannabis use, to prevent Canadians from being denied entry to the U.S. for use of a substance that will be legal in Canada but illegal south of the border.
With files from The Canadian Press
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