Government threatens to cut off Senate debate on pot as July deadline looms

OTTAWA — The Trudeau government is moving to ensure the Senate doesn’t hold up its plans to legalize recreational marijuana in July.

The government’s representative in the upper house, Sen. Peter Harder, served notice Tuesday 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 chamber for a final debate and vote.

If the various Senate factions won’t agree to that timetable, Harder warned he’ll move a motion to impose time allocation to cut off debate — the first time he’s threatened to resort to that tactic since taking on the role of government representative two years ago.

“My fear, quite frankly, is that March 1 would come and we may see the sort of procedural obstruction we have seen from senators in this Parliament on multiple items of business,” he told his fellow senators.

Harder aimed his remarks primarily at Conservative senators, whom he said have been instructed by their party’s leader, Andrew Scheer, to use “all the democratic tools” available to “block” the bill.

Conservative Senate Leader Larry Smith last week denied his senators plan to be “obstructionist” but he said they will insist on a thorough examination of the legislation.

C-45 has been before the Senate since November and so far only one Conservative senator has joined the debate. The Conservative critic for the bill, Sen. Claude Carignan has yet to speak.

Barring the imposition of time allocation, Senate rules allow debate to be delayed indefinitely as long as a single senator still wants to speak.

Harder’s threat to cut off debate comes a week after Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor told senators 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.

Harder’s move to speed up the glacial pace of the bill through the Senate suggests the government is hoping to have cannabis available for sale in July.

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