Canada: Tensions Flare In Senate Over Marijuana-Legalization Bill

Photo Credit: David McNew

The senator who is shepherding the federal bill to legalize cannabis through the Senate is growing impatient with the slow pace of debate, alleging the Conservative are holding up the process for partisan purposes.

“There is a sensible way [to proceed] which is that we all sit down and talk about the time frame for the debate and we bring our adult selves to the table,” said Independent Senator Tony Dean, who is sponsoring the legislation in the Senate. “That is what I have been arguing for two or three months. Obviously, people prefer the traditional way that will unfold more slowly.”

He said there is an increasing likelihood the government would use time allocation – also known as closure – at some point to speed up the legislative process.

The Trudeau government has yet to impose time allocation in the Senate since taking office, but it is seen as a growing possibility in this case. Bill C-45 is currently stuck at second reading in the Senate, with no timetable for its referral to committee for in-depth review.

Mr. Dean, a former senior civil servant in Ontario, said Conservative senators seem intent on using procedural tricks to drag out the debate and irk the Liberal government.

“It seems to me, through a political lens, that the Conservatives wouldn’t mind seeing time allocation because they could accuse the government of cutting off debate. It really is that silly,” he said. “Will it be used? I have no idea, but it may be necessary. If we in the Senate confront delay for the sake of partisan politics and not due diligence, I would support it.”

The Liberal government wants Bill C-45 to be passed this spring. Once the bill receives royal assent, there will be a transition period of eight to 12 weeks before the market for recreational cannabis officially opens up, with the government aiming for legalization to occur in July.

The Conservative Leader in the Senate, Larry Smith, said in the Red Chamber this week that his caucus members will not engage in “obstructionist” tactics but simply want to voice their numerous concerns over legalization.

Bill C-45 is currently at second reading, in which senators can speak on the broad principles of the legislation.

About 20 Conservative senators have said they want to speak at this stage of the legislative process, but none have done so at this point, even though the bill has been in the chamber since November. Under Senate rules, there is no way to force senators to give their speeches within a specific time period, except for invoking time allocation.

“There are many senators who have said they want to participate in the debate, even at the second-reading stage on the principle of the legislation,” Conservative MP Claude Carignan said. “Usually there are fewer people who want to speak at this stage, but given the importance of the legislation, there are many people who have something to say.”

Mr. Carignan suspects the Senate will eventually adopt amendments to Bill C-45, which would have to be approved by the House of Commons. “It’s impossible to have this done by May 1. At this point, finishing by the end of June is a real challenge,” he said.

However, Mr. Dean said the proposed legislation could easily be adopted in coming weeks if everyone “rolls up their sleeves.”

“It can be done, it should be done. Will it be done? That is a question of the degree to which partisan politics leak into this,” Mr. Dean said.