Cannabis Act Senate Watch: A Resolved Stalemate Creates a New Sale Date

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The Cannabis Act (Bill C-45) was passed in the House of Commons on November 27, 2017. It was introduced to the Senate the day after and given first reading. Second reading started on November 30. When it ends, the bill will go to committee for detailed review, including witness testimony, and then back to the Senate for a third reading and a vote. Meanwhile, politicians from opposing parties in the upper (Senate) and lower (House of Commons) houses of parliament duke it out. Here’s a recap of this week’s round.

Canadians will have to wait until at least August to buy recreational cannabis.

Senators have ended a stalemate and agreed to cast their final votes on the Cannabis Act (Bill C-45) by June 7. Because it will take at least eight weeks to get the retail system up and running after the bill is passed, Canadians will have to wait until at least August to buy recreational cannabis—a month after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s original target date.

Cannabis supporters are disappointed about the extended wait but they’re breathing a sigh of relief; until the plan was finalized Thursday, they feared the wait would be indefinite. Proceedings in the Senate had ground to a halt, and the fate of the bill hung in the balance.

On Tuesday, Peter Harder, the government-appointed senator responsible for promoting and defending the government’s bills in the Senate, said he wanted the second reading of the bill to be wrapped up by March 1, after which it would go to committee for detailed review and then return to the Senate for a third reading and final vote.

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Harder warned his peers that if they didn’t agree to his plan he might invoke time allocation, a procedural tool through which the government can shut down debate and move to a vote. He noted that it might be necessary given that Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer had urged Conservative senators to use “all democratic tools” available to “block” the bill.

“While I certainly agree we need to take our time to do our job of sober second thought, any potential delay for the sake of delay would do a disservice to Canadians and to the culture here in this chamber,” he said. “My fear, quite frankly, is that March 1 [will] come and we may see the sort of procedural obstruction we have seen from senators in this Parliament on multiple items of business.”

Conflict around the recent 'National Anthem' bill led to speculation the Conservatives might retaliate by delaying the Cannabis Act.

Political observers saw it as a thinly veiled reference to the national anthem dust-up. For almost two years, the Conservatives delayed passage of a private member’s bill that ultimately changed the lyrics of the anthem to make them gender neutral. (The words “in all thy sons command” were replaced by “in all of us command.”) The bill finally came to a vote in January thanks to independent senator Frances Lankin, who brought a “guillotine motion” that prevented further delay. Still, Conservative senators boycotted the final vote and said they were putting the Trudeau government “on notice” that they would use all legitimate means available to restore “the right of all senators to debate in the Chamber.” That led to speculation the Conservatives might retaliate by delaying the Cannabis Act.

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The Conservatives responded to Harder’s threat with defiance. Larry Smith, leader of the Conservative caucus in the Senate, said they needed more time to give the bill “constructive evaluation” and added that they had grave concerns over the government’s plans, including measures to reduce cannabis use among young people and ensure it doesn’t become a problem in workplaces.

In the House of Commons, Conservative members of parliament accused Trudeau of trying to rush the bill through the Senate primarily to help Liberal Party friends.

In the House of Commons, Conservative members of parliament criticized the Trudeau government, accusing it of trying to rush the bill through the Senate primarily to help Liberal Party friends, who own cannabis companies financed by anonymous individuals from offshore tax havens—havens that can be used by organized crime to launder money. (A recent report found that almost half of 86 licensed cannabis producers are financed through havens often used by organized crime.)

Trudeau insisted that the purpose of legalization is to regulate cannabis to eradicate the black market and ensure cannabis is less accessible to young people. Furthermore, he said, the proposed regulations for legalized cannabis will ensure all actions in the industry are above board. He said individuals who have key positions in any cannabis organization will be required to go through security clearances and major investors will have to go through background checks.

Almost 20 Conservatives senators plan to speak during the second reading of the bill but, so far, only one of them has.