July Launch of Canadian Cannabis Reforms Now Seems Uncertain

Last year, the Canadian government teased that recreational marijuana sales would begin on July 1st of 2018. More recently, however, the Trudeau administration nipped that news in the bud, saying they don’t know where the media got that idea. “Sometime in July,” was the newly stated goal.

Now, after yesterday's televised hearing, those goalposts may have been taken down altogether with no firm date as to when they might go back up.

A Live, Televised Hearing

Tuesday afternoon Canadian Television News hosted a rare, televised broadcast of a hearing in the Canadian Senate to discuss the country’s marijuana legalization plans.

For two hours, the Liberal ministers responsible for implementing the legislation to legalize cannabis, Bill C-45 took questions from Senators eager to learn about progress and projections as the country supposedly counts down to the launch of legal recreational marijuana this coming July.

The panel included Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, and Justice and Health Parliamentary Secretary Bill Blair.

To understand what happened in Tuesday’s hearing, in Canada, after a bill is approved by the government, it must go through a process known as Royal Assent. When a bill passes both houses of Parliament in identical form, it must then receive the approval of “the Sovereign.” In Canada, Royal Assent is given by the Governor General or one of the Governor General’s deputies.

When questioned about expected launch dates, Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor indicated that provinces and territories will need eight to 12 weeks to prepare for retail sales after Bill C-45 is given Royal Assent. However, it was not clear whether the minister expected to achieve Royal Assent in time for a July launch.

In order to be ready in time for a July launch, the Senate would have to approve the bill before the end of May. Judging from the lines of questioning and the inconclusive responses, that timeline is looking unlikely.

What Petitpas Taylor did say about the timeline was, "We still feel very confident that we can meet our goal of July 2018. No one ever said July 1, or I never said July 1. But our goal of meeting July 2018, for me, is still very much a realistic goal."

When Senator Jim Munson (an independent Liberal) attempted to get some clarity on when the ministers expect to have Royal Assent, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s response was not extremely helpful. "Our goal is this summer, in an orderly fashion, with all the pieces sequenced in the right order so that they are effective," he said.

So the goal now seems to be “this summer,” which pushes it up as far as the end of September.

Questions Remain

This bill is by no means a done deal. Not every member of the Senate is on board. Conservative senators, in particular, raised a number of concerns.

Senate leader Larry Smith argued that marijuana should not be legalized before the government has conducted an intensive public education campaign about the dangers of cannabis use.

Another Conservative senator, Denise Batters, raised skepticism about the claim that regulating cannabis will reduce teen use, pointing to a provision in Bill C-45 which allows individuals to grow marijuana plants in their homes.

Independent Liberal Senator Serge Joyal implied that he remains skeptical of the idea that legalization will reduce organized crime and black market sales. To make his point, Joyal referenced a report which claims that nearly half of the 86 companies that have received growing permits are financed through offshore tax havens which are frequently used by organized crime to launder money.

Hope Remains For July Launch

Hope still remains that the government will be able to meet it’s July 2018 launch goal.

Toronto Liberal MP Bill Blair, the government's marijuana csar, reminded senators repeatedly that the concerns being raised already exist in Canada. He stressed that not only does current law leave the market to criminals, but prohibition has actually led to increased cannabis use by young people.

"I'm frankly not prepared to leave the health and safety of our children in the hands of criminals," added Blair, a former Toronto police chief.

Minister Goodale added, "Obviously, the current law has failed."

Sen. Smith assured the ministers that his intent is not to obstruct enactment of reforms, but also added, "I promise you, however, that we will give a voice to those in the Canadian public who have significant and valid concerns about the policy choice your government is making."

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