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OP-ED: Senate Should Improve Cannabis Laws, Not Stall Them

Senator Tony Dean

Provinces, municipalities, police forces, businesses, investors and untold other Canadians have been working at the double-quick to get ready for legalization of cannabis. Canada’s senators must not be seen as partisan laggards who hold up their hard work.

From the day I took on sponsorship of this bill in the Senate, the question I have heard most frequently from journalists interested in cannabis Bill C-45 was, ‘when will the bill be approved by the Senate?’

The answer is ‘not very long from now’, provided some opposing senators turn their minds to the substance of Bill C-45 rather than focusing on how they it can be delayed.

The most recent timing issue emerged earlier this week, when Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor told a special committee meeting of the Senate that Canada’s provinces and municipalities need eight to 12 weeks of lead time to adapt to the regulations that would follow approval of the bill. Other organizations have also been preparing diligently, hiring staff, training individuals, investing etc.

These organizations have important timetables and they expect the Senate of Canada to respect their work by doing its job. Indeed for provinces like Ontario and New Brunswick, approval can’t come soon enough.  In this sense, approval of Bill C-45 by May of this year sounds more desirable than July for provinces, who have already invested significant time and resources for the preparation of legal cannabis.

So it’s time for us to pull up our socks and get on with the work we are paid to do.

The question of timing arose shortly after the Bill arrived in the Senate in November last year — driven by reactions to the federal government’s July 2018 target date for the kick-off for the proposed new regime.

At that time, Andrew Scheer, the Leader of the Conservative parliamentary caucus, who obviously doesn’t think we have a problem with cannabis in Canada, publicly directed Conservative senators to delay the Bill.

So much for independence in sober second thought. Mr. Scheer’s Senators appear to have snapped to it and a very serious public health issue is becoming a political football.

These Senate Conservatives are saying “what’s the rush?” while going AWOL in participating in the Second Reading debate. As of Feb. 7, not a single member of that caucus had spoken in the Chamber to Bill C-45, even though there has been ample opportunity to do so since November. In fact, that group shut down questions minutes after I had delivered my second reading speech on Nov. 30.

This is all a bit rich from a political party which itself knows something about moving legislation with dispatch.  Time allocation motions were employed over 100 times during the tenure of the previous government, with some bills pushed through in one day. By contrast, time allocation has not been used in the Senate once since the 2015 election.

Admittedly, the view is different from the opposition benches. Adequate time to study a bill comprehensively is crucial. But let’s be real. Bill C 45 will be scrutinized for months as opposed to days. Hardly a rush.

In the midst of the timing debate, it is important to note that the conversation on legalizing cannabis is not new. Indeed, the Senate of Canada’s Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, chaired by a former Conservative senator, recommended the legalization of cannabis in 2002.

Another challenge with debate in the Senate is the slap-dash, truncated, approach to debates which are plagued by tactical adjournment-driven delays.  This happens far too regularly.

But the new cadre of independent Senators see the possibility of a more effective and efficient Senate which moves beyond the replication of the political dynamics of the House of Commons. One that really does provide sober second thought.

Reform-minded senators of every stripe were advocating for this long before my arrival. But we now have a critical mass interested in pushing that agenda forward.

At the centre of this discussion is a proposal for the creation of a senate business planning process, one in which senate leaders organize and map out timelines for review of government business. This would ensure that blocks of time are set aside on the calendar to really dig down into legislation in a concentrated way.

I argued for three months last Fall that this sort of process should be used for the review of Bill C-45
Alas, the response from some of my Conservative colleagues was that they preferred the traditional way of doing business.  But I think it’s time to move on and I suspect that many Canadian observers of the old-school Senate would agree. I’d be supportive of trying this again, and I know that Senator Peter Harder, the government representative in the Senate, as well as senators from all corners of the chamber, also like this approach. Frankly, there will be a time when we have to decide.

Let me conclude by saying that, like other independent senators, I don’t have to take instructions from Andrew Scheer or Justin Trudeau. My focus is on doing the best job I can for Canadians.

Now that is a privilege.

This article appeared in the February 8, 2018 edition of iPolitics. Read it here.