Pushing Cannabis Legalization Up Parliament Hill

byAlanaArmstrong4 minutes

If Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is going to fulfill his 2015 election campaign promise to make Canada the first Group of Seven nation to legalize recreational cannabis for adults, he's still got a ways to push that boulder up Parliament Hill. The Senate, with whom the legalization bill now sits, warns that there will be a delay in the Liberal government’s initial July target date, though Trudeau remains committed to a summer start for cannabis legalization.

The PM's aim to pinch criminal production—an estimated market of $7 billion per year—and curbing cannabis use by young people remains the same. But the Senate evidently needs much more than this to proceed with legalizing recreational marijuana, something most Canadians—about 68%, according to a Dalhousie University survey—seem to want.

A Strange New Strategy to Expedite the Marijuana Bill

In a wholly unorthodox move, Trudeau sent four cabinet members to Canada’s Senate in the first week of February to help along the bill that has been sitting there, awaiting approval since Nov. 28.

The group included Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould; Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor; Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale; and justice and Liberal party cannabis point man, parliamentary Health Secretary Bill Blair.

The Feb. 6 hearing—called a Senate committee of the whole because it involves all sitting members on a time-sensitive issue—was televised, another unusual characteristic of this Upper Chamber meeting.

This allowed lawmakers from the Conservative party, as well as Independent senators, to question these ministers about outstanding issues:

Government House Leader Bardish Chagger described this as a "two-way conversation" to inform the Senate's second reading of cannabis Bill C-45.

Taking the Senate's Temperature on the Cannabis Bill

The Senate rarely halts laws sent to them from the House of Commons. If Bill C-45 ends up dead, it will be a strong message from the country's lawmakers and a massive failure by Trudeau's Liberals.

Conservative Leader from the House of Commons Andrew Scheer is being scrutinized by Liberals for coercing his Senate caucus to dig their heels in over the government legislation. Not necessarily to crush it forever but to push it back, perhaps until Canadians go to the polls.

Conservative lawmaker and Senate member Larry Smith assures that the party is merely giving voice to Canadians who have "significant policy concerns" about this plan.

Despite pushback from Conservatives and Independents of the Senate, the Liberal ministers in attendance remain optimistic.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould assures that cannabis legalization is on track. “I am confident that we will be in a place for the legalization of cannabis, July of 2018, and that a responsible process for implementation of the act will continue thereafter.”

Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor is looking forward to an “orderly and responsible transition,” remarking that “the passing of Bill C-45 will be a milestone in Canadian history.”

It's fortunate, then, that Canadians were able to witness the Senate in action, instead of having the kind of audio-only access more typical of hearings like this.

When Will the Senate Vote on Marijuana Legalization?

The Senate will hold a final vote on the issue of cannabis legalization by June 7, but the federal government is declaring that legal marijuana won’t be available for sale before August. Then, along with its Senate-given amendments, the bill returns to the House of Commons. Ginette Petitpas Taylor reminds Canadians that marijuana legalization "is not a date, it's a process."

Even if cannabis legalization occurs by July 2018, companies and local governments will likely get eight to 12 weeks after any legislation passes to ready themselves. Provinces and territories that remain unprepared to sell cannabis at this time will be protected by a backstop system that will allow residents to purchase marijuana regardless. The Parliament set up a handy site to help Canadians track federal marijuana legalization legislation and provincial cannabis regulations.

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Photo credit: Tony Webster