The Senate’s slow legalization debate

Bills C-45 and C-46 are currently at second reading in the Senate, after making their way through the House earlier this year. Bill C-46 entered the Senate on Nov 1 and C-45 on Nov 28.

The debate around both bills in the Senate has been, so far, relatively limited, with a little less than three hours spent debating C-46 over five sitting days at second reading, and only about one hour during one sitting day on C-45.

C-46, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (offences relating to conveyances) and to make consequential amendments to other Acts, is seen by some as a companion act in relation to Bill C-45, the Cannabis Act, although C-46 deals with impaired driving for all drugs and alcohol, not only cannabis.

The way the Senate is treating the new impaired driving act, as well as how they have dealt with recent and similarly controversial legislation, could provide insight into how they will handle the Cannabis Act.

Bill C-46, despite being legislation introduced by the Liberal government, has already received considerable concern from not only Conservatives, but also Liberal and Independent Senators.

Senator Raymonde Saint-Germain, a member of the recently-formed Independent Senators Group (ISG), says she has concerns that legislation could discriminate against medical cannabis patients, as did Independent Senators Marc Gold and Andre Pratt.

Other controversial legislation
Another similarly controversial piece of legislation that made its way through the Senate recently was Bill C-14, the assisted dying legislation from 2016. C-14 was introduced into the House in April 2016 and sent to the Senate by the end of May 2016.

After a lengthy debate in the Senate, with over 8 hours of debate at second reading over two days and two separate committee hearings, the Senate returned the bill to the house with seven proposed amendments.

The House and Senate then spent two days discussing and considering the proposed amendments before the House sent the bill back to the Senate, having approved most of the amendments. One specific amendment rejected by the House would have removed the ability for ‘advanced consent’ for assisted dying in certain cases. Some in the Senate wanted to not budge on this amendment, risking delaying the bill through further debate, before relenting and passing the bill 44-28. The bill was finally sent back to the House and received royal assent that evening, July 17, 2016.

The Senate could still choose to engage in a few marathon debate sessions at second reading like they did with C-14 and have done with other legislation, before sending the bill to committee. But with less than 15 sitting days before the winter break, which stretches from Dec 22 until Jan 30. With no more committee hearings currently scheduled after Monday, Dec 11, the likelihood of the bill making its way to back to the House before winter break ends seems very unlikely.

If the Senate wants to pick apart the legislation in committee and add any amendments to address some of the more common concerns like home growing or international treaties or some of the more strict criminal penalties for those violating the act (like 14 year prison sentences), the question then is if the House will push back on these or accept them.

International treaties, home grows, criminal charges for youth possession
The Conservatives in the House have been beating the drum around home growing, specifically, with some incredibly outrageous comments and stunts over the past few months, including the reading of a poem, the comparison of home-grow with ‘fentanyl on the shelf,’ the claim that four cannabis plants can produce 4,800 grams of cannabis, the claim that kids will use toasters to heat up cannabis leaves, and the constant and ever present concern of kids being around cannabis plants.


One analyst who is close to the progress of C-45 and watching the senate closely, Alex Shiff, a Senior Consultant with Navigator Ltd., says he thinks the Liberal government may not budge on these issues, but still thinks the Senate may choose to make parts of the bill like home grows an issue.

“I am expecting a protracted debate that could last considerably longer than many are anticipating,” says Shiff, who has also worked as a policy advisor in the past for NORML Canada. “We are beginning to hear rumblings that the Senate might propose amendments to the legislation around some of the more contentious issues such as personal cultivation. Ultimately, I believe the Trudeau government will not back down, and the Senate will relent before the summer break.”

In addition to home-grow, the Conservatives in the House have also raised a lot of concern at the lack of criminal charges for Canadians under 18 for personal possession of cannabis. The Cannabis Act does not include criminal penalties for youth 12-18 found in possession of up to five grams of cannabis, while allowing provinces to enact their own penalties similar to alcohol possession for youth, such as community service and counselling rather than sending youth into the criminal justice system for what amounts to a public health issue.

If the Senate follows this lead, and at least one Conservative Senator has already raised this issue, it seems possible that we could see amendments to address some of these concerns.

Based on the one hour the Senate has put into debating the issue so far—along with the few concerns raised by Senators Carignan and Paul E. McIntyre, who raised questions around youth possession and international treaties, respectively, on Nov 30—the Senate is mirroring many of the concerns raised by opposition parties in the House.

The Senate is expected to debate both C-45 and C-46 today, although they have passed over several days of debate so far. It’s not uncommon for the Senate to not address everything on their schedule on a given day, and many debates are delayed until further sitting.