Canada: Marijuana Legalization Facing Key Vote In Senate Today

Photo Credit: Justin Tang

Senators are set to vote later today on whether to pass the government’s marijuana legalization bill on to the next leg of the legislative process. If there’s not enough support in the increasingly independent Upper Chamber, the bill could die.

Bill C-45 is scheduled to be voted on in the Senate at second reading later today, as part of the Senate’s agreed-upon schedule for studying the major government policy. The vote is on whether or not to pass it on for further study at committee.

Senators from all sides have vocalized concerns over aspects of the bill, from health and youth access concerns, to policing and legal worries, but defeating it at this stage would be an extremely rare move.

It is expected senators will request a standing vote, a more formal procedure than a voice vote where those in the Chamber say “yay” or “nay.” A standing or recorded vote is where each head is counted.

Senators have told CTV News that they think the vote will be close and it’s making some nervous about who will be present.

There are currently 43 Independent senators, 33 Conservative senators, 11 Liberal senators, six non-affiliated senators, and 12 vacant seats.

The legislation would be defeated if the Conservatives in the Senate are joined by enough other dissenting senators, whether they are Independent or Liberal, in registering their opposition to the bill.

This would mean the federal government would have to reintroduce a tweaked version of it as a new bill and send it through the winding legislative process all over again, try to fast-track it with all-party consent, or ram it through using their majority. If the government wanted the identical bill to be tabled they’d have to prorogue as you cannot introduce the same bill twice in a session of Parliament.

Not all Conservative senators are expected to vote to defeat the bill. Conservative Sen. Vern White told CTV News he supports the bill going to committee to get a chance to evaluate all the concerns already raised.

Leader of the Independent senators Sen. Yuen Pau Woo downplayed the potential closeness of the vote when asked by CTV News Wednesday, but he confirmed he had asked the Independent senators to be present for the vote.

“What I’ve said to all of them is that ‘you should be there for the vote because it is important’ and many of them will be there,” he said.

Woo said he thinks all sides understand the “gravity” of today’s vote.

“We all understand the importance of a vote at second reading of a major piece of government legislation that was… a central part of the election platform. I think we all understand by tradition and by the practice of the Senate, that it would be extraordinary to defeat a bill at second reading.”

He is supportive of it passing to committee to fully scrutinize the concerns raised during second reading.

“We have some very tough questions which is precisely why the bill has to go to committee for that kind of more in-depth scrutiny,” Woo said.

Leader of the Conservatives in the Senate, Sen. Larry Smith would not comment on the vote when asked by CTV News Wednesday evening. In an open letter to Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor Wednesday he raised concerns with the timeline to prepare for “this huge societal shift.”

When asked whether there were senators ready to see the bill defeated, Independent Sen. Larry Campbell said: “Oh there’s no question. This is a high-profile bill… We’ve heard on a daily basis senators get up and speak about concerns.”

Campbell told CTV News Wednesday he “really” didn’t know whether there will be enough votes for Bill C-45 to pass.

“Because I’m in the Independents and we don’t ask anybody how they’re going to vote,” he said.

Independence in the Senate

In 2014, as then-leader of the third party, Justin Trudeau removed all Liberal senators from the national Liberal caucus. Since becoming prime minister, Trudeau has embarked on creating a non-partisan Senate, with a new and independent advisory board to recommend Senate appointments.

Independent senators say their votes aren’t whipped the same way other political caucuses can be to fall on party lines, making the outcome of votes harder to predict.

To date Trudeau has appointed 33 independent senators. One of these appointments was Sen. Peter Harder, who is the government’s representative in the Senate. During a speech earlier this week Harder waded in to the big question of the Senate’s role and whether it should know it’s limits when it comes to respecting the will of the elected House of Commons on government bills.

“The Senate’s power to defeat Government legislation has rarely been invoked, and only in the gravest of circumstances. Canadians expect, quite rightly, that their elected representatives have the last word. The Senate’s role in our democracy is not to defeat a bill that puts in place a duly elected Government’s electoral pledge,” he said.

Bill C-45 timeline

In February, senators agreed to a legislative timetable on Bill C-45 that stated the second reading vote would take place on or before March 22, and then after the bill is sent to various committees for consideration, the final vote on or before June 7. This move pushed back the government’s desired timetable for pot to be legal, initially expected for July 2018.

The bill has been before the Senate since November 2017, and it has come up for debate at its current stage 12 times, with numerous senators voicing concerns.

In a statement Wednesday, Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos slammed the Liberal government’s bill, saying they cobbled it together, calling it a “sorely lacking” bill that “is long on platitudes but short on the necessary science and preparedness that is crucial to ensuring it’s in the best interest of Canadians.”

On CTV News Thursday morning, Independent Sen. Tony Dean said he thinks moving the bill on to committee is an important part of the Senate doing its due diligence.

“We’ve only just begun the process… so frankly I’d be surprised, I’ll be terribly disappointed if that process was interrupted now and I think large numbers of Canadian citizens who are concerned about cannabis would be disappointed too,” Dean said.

Bill C-45 is set to come up around 3:45 p.m. in the Senate today but with a number of more speakers set to debate before the vote is called, it could be pushing 8 p.m. this evening before the fate of the legislation is known.