Canadian Senate Votes to Legalize Marijuana, Bill Moves to House

Canada’s Cannabis Act has cleared a major hurdle on the path to legalization after the Senate voted last week to pass it into law. Now Bill C-45 will move to the House of Commons, which will also have to vote in favor. The bill now includes 46 different amendments added by the Senate in the past few weeks, which the House will also need to decide on.

One of the amendments would allow individual provinces to determine rules on home cultivation, including a complete ban on home-growing. The provincial governments of Quebec and Manitoba have already expressed a desire to implement such a ban, but Liberals cite home-growing as a key part of the legislation.

“We set out a framework in C-45 that ensures safe access across the country to a legal source of cannabis and that includes home cultivation,” Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould told reporters after the Senate’s vote. “We’ve been clear on our messaging in terms of the purpose of the legislation and Bill C-45. But having said that, of course we are going to consider every amendment the senators are putting back to us.” Wilson-Raybould is one of three ministers who will be combing through the newly amended bill before making recommendations to the House.

Most notably for the promo industry, among the amendments is a prohibition of branded merchandise other than marijuana accessories. The amendment removed a portion of the original bill that would allow companies to promote their products and services using “brand elements” on non-pot-related merchandise, such as hats or apparel, as long as the items didn’t appeal to youth or weren’t directly associated with attractive lifestyles.

With the removal, legal cannabis producers wouldn’t be able to use promotional products, such as T-shirts, hats and tech accessories, to advertise their wares – what the Senate calls “brand-stretching.”

The amendment, originally proposed by the Non-Smoker’s Rights Association, was put forward by Conservative Sen. Judith Seidman in an effort to remove portions of the bill that would allow marijuana companies to advertise using swag items. However, the amendment does not stipulate the exact criteria for banned items, or how law enforcement would be able to address it.

Seidman called on the Senate to close a “loophole” that allowed for this “stealth” marketing, adding that restrictions on advertising would “reduce the likelihood of an ongoing conflict” between the government and an industry that’s likely to “aggressively” promote its products.

“To think that these products won’t develop a cachet among teenagers is delusional,” Seidman told the Senate. “We’ve seen this story before with tobacco.” She added, “We are all too familiar with the marketing techniques used by alcohol and tobacco companies to maximize consumption of their products – and consequently, their profits.”

Immediately, cannabis supporters took to social media expressing their astonishment that pot will be legal, but a T-shirt or hat promoting a legal producer will not be. Members of the legal production contingent said the ban would make competing with the black market more difficult.

“We’re trying to compete with a market that has extensive branding both in terms of the packaging, and in terms of their swag and their online digital presence,” Greg Engel, chief executive of cannabis company Organigram Holdings Inc., told the Financial Post in Toronto. He added that the legal market will start out at a disadvantage compared with the illegal industry, and so will need the freedom to promote their legitimate product in order to compete successfully.

Independent Sen. Tony Dean, the sponsor of the bill, had opposed the no-swag amendment, arguing that the bill already contained enough promotion and marketing restrictions. Other senators voiced concern that the amendment would be an unnecessary curtailment of commercial expression.

The bill may still have a lengthy path to legalization in front of it. Once the ministers in the House have considered the amended bill from the Senate, they will send their recommendations to the Cabinet, which will decide which amendments are acceptable and will be up for a vote before the Commons.

Given that the bill may have to weather a period of back-and-forth between the House and Senate, the timing of legalization and potential restrictions on brand and product promotion still remains to be seen. Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor, another of the three ministers currently reviewing the bill and its amendments, has said it could be two or three months of provincial preparation once the bill has officially passed before retail sales of cannabis will actually begin.