OTTAWA — Conservative senators are balking at an attempt to speed up consideration of a bill to legalize recreational marijuana, which the Trudeau government hopes to have in place this July.
Sen. Larry Smith, who leads the Conservative caucus in the Senate, indicated Wednesday that his senators need more time than the government wants to allow to do their duty as the official Opposition: to provide thorough and "constructive evaluation" of bills, particularly one as complicated and far-reaching as the cannabis legislation.
The government's representative in the Senate, Sen. Peter Harder, served notice this week that he wants second reading debate on Bill C-45 wrapped up by March 1, after which it would go to committee for detailed examination before returning to the Senate for a final debate and vote.
If the various Senate factions don't agree to that timetable, Harder warned he'll move a motion to impose time allocation to cut off debate — a tactic he's avoided using before now.
Harder justified using it on C-45 because, he said, Conservative senators have been instructed by their party's leader, Andrew Scheer, to use "all democratic tools" available to "block" the bill.
The bill has been before the Senate since November but only one Conservative senator has spoken on it thus far.
Barring time allocation to cut debate short, Senate rules allow debate to be delayed indefinitely as long as a single senator still wants to speak.
Smith said he's got 17 senators who want to take part in second reading debate but they haven't spoken as yet, since they were waiting to hear from the ministers in charge of the cannabis file. Those ministers — Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale — testified on the bill before the Senate last week.
Given the interest in the debate, Smith said he'll be urging Harder to show "some flexibility" on the March 1 deadline.
"We're looking to see whether there's an opportunity, a schedule that can be set up that serves all the needs of the four groups," he said, referring to the Conservatives, the Independent Senators Group, former Liberal senators and non-affiliated independent senators.
As for Harder's claim that Scheer has instructed Conservative senators to use all available tools to block the bill, Smith said: "Andrew Scheer said exactly what any Opposition leader would say, (which) is that, 'We're in Opposition and do what you can do to be an effective Opposition.'"
"The purpose of what we're trying to do is make sure that we constructively evaluate all of the elements of this bill," he added.
"It's very intricate. There's health issues, there's issues for young people, there's issues for impaired driving ... the impact of people high on pot working their machines. There's also the implementation date and the training that's supposed to take place."
Petitpas Taylor told senators last week that provincial governments will need two to three months after the bill receives royal assent to prepare for retail sales of cannabis.
She insisted the government is still on track to legalize weed this July but didn't clarify whether she meant it would actually be available for sale at that time or simply that the bill would have received royal assent by then. Officials later said that would depend on how quickly C-45 gets through the Senate.
The Senate would have to pass the bill by the end of May at the latest for marijuana sales to start in July.
On Wednesday, Petitpas Taylor said she had not spoken to Harder about trying to speed up the progress of the bill through the Senate.
But in the House of Commons, Conservative MPs alleged that the government is trying to rush the bill through the Senate to help Liberal friends who own marijuana companies financed by anonymous individuals via offshore tax havens, which can be used by organized crime to launder money.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — who maintains the purpose of legalization is to regulate cannabis so that it's less accessible to young people and organized crime's control over the market is eliminated — brushed off those allegations.
Under the proposed regulations for legalized cannabis, he said "security clearances will be mandatory for individuals who occupy key positions in any organization, as well as background checks on significant investors to any marijuana company."
Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press
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