John Ivison: Slow-moving senators could frustrate any attempt by Liberals to rush pot legalization

You want it when? The Senate tends to move with the urgency of Flash the Sloth in Disney’s Zootopia.

The upshot is that there are growing concerns in government about the Red Chamber meeting Justin Trudeau’s summer deadline on legalizing marijuana, as well as passing the accompanying impaired driving bill.

At least the main cannabis bill — C-45 — goes to a vote in the Senate on June 7. That would give the House two weeks before the summer break to deal with any amendments.

But the drug impaired driving bill — C-46 — is still before the Senate’s legal affairs committee, which is drawing up a draft report.

The upshot – even if the pot bill receives Royal Assent before Canada Day, the impaired driving bill may not pass until later in the year.

Bill Blair, the government’s point man on the pot bill could barely contain his frustration in an interview. “It’s our desire that the Senate deal with this (C-46) in an expeditious fashion. The day it is enacted, it will begin saving lives. My desire was to see C-46 pass six months ago. But I don’t see a delay in C-46 being an impediment to the passage and Royal Assent of C-45,” he said.

The government has already said that it doesn’t see the sale of legal pot happening until two to three months after the bill is passed into law. Blair said pot can’t be moved legally from producers to distributors until Royal Assent is given.

But the Senate isn’t scheduled to return from its summer break until September 17.

We may well have an extended period of time when pot is legal but the drug impaired driving bill is still before lawmakers.

This doesn’t necessarily mean chaos on the roads – the police already have the powers to arrest drugged up drivers. The two bills are independent from one another, even if they were conceived together.

But it is far from optimal and raises the question, yet again: why did the Liberals give themselves the artificial deadline of Canada Day to pass the pot bill?

While C-46 is not as advanced in the legislative process as C-45, it is relatively uncontroversial.

The same cannot be said of C-45 in its current form.

Blair is too much of a straight-shooter to convey the subtle untruths so typical on Parliament Hill.

Liberal MP Bill Blair: “It’s our desire that the Senate deal with this in an expeditious fashion.”

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

I asked the former Toronto Police Chief if he is confident C-45 will make it through the Senate in time to meet the Prime Minister’s timeline.

He thought about it for a moment, before saying he is confident the Senate will do its work and vote on the bill on June 7. Four Senate committees have reported on the bill and a final report, with amendments, is being drawn up by the social affairs committee.

Blair said the government is open to amendments. “Everything can always be improved,” he said.

It’s not clear which suggested changes will make the final cut. But there is sympathy among some senators for provinces like Quebec and Manitoba that argue they would like to forbid the home cultivation of any cannabis plants. Bill C-45 makes it an offence to grow more than four plants. Blair said the legislation does not create a legal right, it just makes it an offence to grow more than four plants. He said provinces will be able to control cultivation within their own jurisdiction through permitting limitations and other regulations.

But André Pratte, the former editor-in-chief of La Presse who now sits as an independent senator, said layers of laws and regulations will be a recipe for confusion. He advocates an amendment that confirms the powers of the provinces to prohibit home cultivation, if they wish to do so. “It makes sense to leave the decision to the people closest to their communities – and that’s the provinces,” he said.

We may well have an extended period of time when pot is legal but the drug impaired driving bill is still before lawmakers

The other major C-45 amendment that may be included in the social affairs report is the suggestion aired by the aboriginal people’s committee that would effectively postpone legalization for up to a year to accommodate broader consultations with indigenous communities in areas like revenue-sharing.

Pratte said he is sympathetic to the argument that the government should have sat down with First Nations before now.

But he said it is unrealistic to push off legalization for up to a year, given the looming 2019 election.

He said changes should be put forward with some prospect of them being acceptable to the government. “We know the answer to this one. It’s not realistic to make such an amendment,” he said.

But delaying implementation of some aspects of the bill has support among a number of senators, including Liberal Serge Joyal.

“Police forces and municipalities and provinces are calling for more time. That is not to oppose the bill but to give them time to adapt,” he said. “The deadline is self-imposed. I don’t dispute the privilege of the government to set a target date but there is the test of reality. It is in the interests of the government for the transition to be done smoothly.”

Compromise may be possible. The government could extend the two to three month period before legalization is operational, in exchange for swift passage in the Senate.

But if the Liberals in the House attempt to ram through C-45 in its current form, they may find that, like the sloths working in the Department of Mammal Vehicles in Zootopia, slow-moving senators are able to frustrate their agenda.

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