OTTAWA – After some concern the vote would be close, senators have passed the Liberal government’s marijuana legalization bill at second reading by a vote of 44 to 29.
The legislation, C-45, will now advance to the committee study stage in the Senate.
There was some nervousness earlier on Thursday that there were enough dissenting senators to kill the bill by voting it down. This would have been an extremely rare move for senators to make and would have forced the government to try to pass a new version of the legislation through all the legislative stages again.
The bill as drafted would allow adults in Canada to possess and use small amounts of recreational marijuana legally. It sets out the parameters around the production, possession, safety standards, distribution, and sale of marijuana. It also creates new Criminal Code offences for selling marijuana to minors.
Pressure from PMO?
The final tally showed that of the 44 who voted to pass it, 29 were Independent senators appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The 28 Conservative senators present voted against it and were joined in their opposition by independent Sen. Mike Duffy.
Following the vote, Leader of the Independent senators Sen. Yuen Pau Woo shot down questions that his group had been whipped to vote to save the government’s bill.
He said he personally had “no contact whatsoever, no pressure” from the prime minister or his office.
Woo confirmed earlier in the day that he had asked the Independent senators to be present for the vote and that he had made a special effort to have people back for it, including having some senators fly back to Ottawa.
He was pleased with the outcome, saying the Independents demonstrated their duty in moving the bill forward for more scrutiny.
Conservative Whip in the Senate, Sen. Don Plett, saw things differently.
“This vote tells me very clearly that we have two caucuses, the Conservative caucus and an Independent caucus and they are far from independent. They have tilted… 95 per cent of the time voted for the Trudeau government,” Plett said. He said bringing members back for a vote is the definition of being whipped.
During media availability in New Brunswick on Thursday ahead of the vote, Trudeau commented that legalized marijuana was a policy Canadians want to see advanced and some considered this a direct message to the Senate.
“The Senate of course exists to look at bills put forward by the House, suggest improvements to think about the impact on Canadians. But it’s very clear the current system is not protecting our communities, is not protecting our kids, and needs to be improved,” Trudeau said.
A ‘test’ of Senate independence
In 2014, as then-leader of the third party, Trudeau removed all Liberal senators from the national Liberal caucus. Since becoming prime minister, Trudeau has embarked on creating a non-partisan Senate, with a new and independent advisory board to recommend Senate appointments.
Sen. Larry Smith, the Senate Conservative leader, called Thursday’s vote a “major test” for the Independents.
“It was a test for the Independent members to recognize that they have an obligation to the prime minister that appointed them and that there has to be a certain discipline that exists,” he said.
There are currently 43 Independent senators, 33 Conservative senators, 11 Liberal senators, six non-affiliated senators, and 12 vacant seats.
To date Trudeau has appointed 33 Independent senators. One of these appointments was Sen. Peter Harder, who is the government’s representative in the Senate. During a speech earlier this week Harder waded into the big question of the Senate’s role, arguing it’s not to defeat a bill that implements an elected government’s platform.
Speaking to reporters following the vote Sen. Harder said it was an “important” moment.
“I always breathe a sigh of relief when the Senate acts responsibly and advances legislation.” Harder said. “I’m happy that the majority of the Senate has concluded that this bill ought to advance for its consideration and we will see how and where we are as the committee deliberations are undertaken.”
Concerns with C-45 remain
Senators from all sides have vocalized concerns over aspects of the bill, from health and youth access to policing and legal worries.
Ahead of the vote, Plett said there are “too many flaws” in Bill C-45 and it “cannot be properly fixed,” but following the vote, he said his caucus will at least try.
Conservatives came out after the vote saying they are hopeful that they will have some help in addressing the issues with the bill, from others who may have voted in favour of it for now, but still have concerns.
“If you’re a Conservative, or a Liberal, or an Independent Trudeau appointee, they all have reservations. I hope they express that reservation in the interest of Canadians and aren’t whipped by this government for political expediency,” Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos said.
Bill C-45 timeline
The vote was scheduled as part of the Senate’s agreed-upon timetable for studying the major government policy.
In February, senators agreed to call the second reading vote on or before March 22. Then it would advance to committee stage with the final vote happening on or before June 7. This move pushed back the government’s desired timetable for pot to be legal, initially expected for July 2018.
The bill has been before the Senate since November 2017.
Now, Bill C-45 will be sent to the Senate Social Affairs, Science and Technology Committee. The bill is also getting supplementary scrutiny from four other committees: the Aboriginal Peoples Committee; the Legal and Constitutional Affairs committee; the National Security and Defence Committee; and the Foreign Affairs and International Trade Committee.
Senators will hear from witnesses and experts on all aspects of marijuana legalization before reporting back with their findings and potential recommendations for amendments..