Yesterday, federal cabinet ministers squared off with senators to debate the government's bill to legalize marijuana, which the House of Commons passed last November. Here are 5 crucial takeaways from the contentious hearing.

1. Finishing what the Senate started

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If the hearing was supposed to be a contest to see who was quicker on the draw when it comes to pointing fingers, then the ministers won hands-down.

In her opening remarks, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould noted that the legalization bill is actually the House's long overdue response to the Senate, which called on Canada to legalize marijuana back in 2002. Which is true.

The Upper Chamber was far ahead of its time 16 years ago when the Senate released a groundbreaking report calling for the legalization and regulation of marijuana in light of the fact that prohibition 'does not bring about the desired reduction in cannabis consumption' but imposes 'a whole series of harmful consequences' on the Canadian people while 'the criminalization of cannabis enhances [the] power and wealth' of people involved in organized crime.

Those points are strikingly similar to the pro-legalization arguments that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made ever since the 2015 federal election. 

So if senators were hoping to put ministers on the defensive yesterday, they were probably caught off-guard when Minister Wilson-Raybould flipped the script and presented their legalization bill as the fulfillment of the Senate's mission to legalize marijuana. 

2. The Senate isn't against legalization

Conservative Senator Larry Smith (Quebec) — the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate — responded to the opening remarks by clarifying that he and his colleagues aren't actually trying to derail legalization, as the media has suggested.

Senator Smith stressed that the Tory senators "will not proceed in an obstructionist manner” regarding the legalization bill. Rather, they are simply pumping the brakes because they want time to voice the concerns of Canadians who are wary of this unprecedented change in Canadian law. 

That's fair so long as 'getting it done right' doesn't mean blocking anything less than perfection. The legal states in America have warned Canada all along that you have to expect the unexpected. So there will definitely be unforeseeable bumps in the road for the new regime, but that doesn't mean we should stick with prohibition, which — as Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale stressed — has been an utter failure.

"Obviously the current law has failed," Minister Goodale told the Senate. "It has not protected our kids, it has not protected public health...What we're trying to get away from is perpetuating the failure of the status quo."

3. Legalization won't be instantaneous

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Marijuana won't go from being a strictly prohibited substance to a legal commodity overnight. The ministers predicted that it will take provinces and territories 2-3 months to implement the new law after it's finalized.

"Provinces and territories say they need 8-12 weeks after royal assent before legalization comes into force," Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said. But she doesn't think that delay will alter the government's timetable for legalization. She's “still very confident that we’ll be able to meet our goal of July 2018.” 

That means the Senate would have to okay the bill for royal assent by May, giving them three months to undertake the rigorous review that Opposition Leader Smith says is necessary to properly vet the bill. If that's not enough, then you have to wonder if the opposition was really planning to pump or slam the brakes all along.

4. Public eduction campaign kicks off soon

Many of the questions asked by the senators implied that the government was being too hasty with the marijuana bill. If that was their intent, then they were unsuccessful as the ministers readily parried every implication that they were rushing this legislation. 

At one point, Senator Smith noted that Colorado and Washington took two years to implement their bills. "What is different here," he wondered, "given that this is a national initiative involving 13 jurisdictions, countless municipalities and indigenous communities?"

Minister Wilson-Raybould countered by stressing that the government has followed a similar timeline as the legal states. "We’ve been working on legalization for over two years now," she said, noting that the task force was formed two years ago to consult stakeholders and experts across North America before submitting a report filled with recommendations in December of 2016.

And when Senator Smith suggested they delay the bill so that the public-education campaign can begin ahead of legalization — "Wouldn’t it be responsible and orderly to give more time to educate our youth?" he asked — Minister Petitpas Taylor said that was the government's plan all along.

The campaign will begin in March, she said, adding that they decided to start the $46 million initiative earlier because the stakeholders in Colorado and Washington told the taskforce that if they could do legalization over again, they would start the public-education campaign before repealing prohibition. 

Hopefully they don't feature the return of stoner sloth.

5. Unanswered questions remain

Despite trying to appear prepared for any question, the ministers couldn't account for every gap or complication with the legalization bill.

At one point, Minister Goodale conceded that there is no foolproof system in place to screen cannabis-impaired drivers on the road. But the government is providing municipalities with $161 million to provide law enforcers with training and tools to detect cannabis-impaired drivers and get them off the road. On top of that, Minister Raybould-Wilson stressed that the legalization bill also "offers some of the toughest anti-impaired driving laws in the world," so the punishments alone could help deter drugged drivers from getting behind the wheel. 

They also recognized that eliminating the black market for marijuana might not be realistic, but legalization can help Canada take a huge bite out of illicit sales.

"The fact of the matter today, the cannabis market in Canada is 100 percent controlled by organized crime," Minister Goodale said. "We’ve got to do better than that...In some states in the US their experience has been after some 4 or 5 years of a different regime, the engagement of organized crime has been reduced by something like 75 percent...The RCMP will obviously be very active and proactive in tracking down the tentacles of organized crime wherever they existing Canada, whether they be in cannabis or anywhere else."

So legalization isn't a flawless system but a work in progress that is clearly preferable to the many gaps in public safety caused by prohibition.

Banner Image: The Honourable Ginette Petitpas Taylor (CPAC)