Senator Larry Smith arrives for the funeral of Pierre Claude Nolin in Montreal. Conservative senators are balking at an attempt to speed up consideration of a bill to legalize recreational marijuana. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Senate deal to vote on pot bill on June 7 means no actual sales before August

OTTAWA — Canadians will have to wait until at least early August — and maybe as late as early September — to legally purchase recreational marijuana.

That’s the bottom line now that senators have struck a deal to hold a final vote by June 7 on the legislation that will usher in the legal cannabis regime.

As recently as last week, the Trudeau government was insisting it was on track for legalization in July. But given the Senate timetable, Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor conceded Thursday that’s not going to happen.

“If you do the math, you can certainly see it certainly won’t be July 2018,” she said.

Assuming Bill C-45 is passed by the Senate by June 7, royal assent would follow almost immediately. But it would take another two or three months before legal weed was actually available for purchase.

That’s because, as Petitpas Taylor reiterated Thursday, provincial and territorial governments need eight to 12 weeks following royal assent to prepare for retail sales.

In other words, legal pot won’t be available until at least early August, and possibly not until a month later.

Petitpas Taylor said legal cannabis will go on sale in all provinces and territories at the same time, which suggests if just one of them requires the full 12 weeks to get ready, they’ll all have to wait.

As part of the deal struck by Sen. Peter Harder, the government’s representative in the Senate, with other Senate factions, initial debate on Bill C-45 will continue until March 22.

That’s three weeks beyond the deadline Harder announced earlier this week, when he threatened to move a motion to cut off second reading debate if senators didn’t agree voluntarily to end it by March 1.

However, the additional three weeks includes a two-week parliamentary break so, in reality, senators will get just an extra three days of debate.

Nevertheless, the extra time was touted as a victory by Conservative senators, whom Harder had feared were intending to obstruct passage of the bill.

“I am pleased to say that we secured time that will allow the Senate to have a thorough evaluation on the marijuana legislation,” Conservative Senate leader Larry Smith said in a statement.

“The Official Opposition in the Senate has been clear from the beginning, we want to review the wide ranging concerns and voids in this legislation, instead of rushing this through only for the sake of a political deadline set by the Trudeau government.”

After second reading, the bill will be sent to five different Senate committees to examine different aspects of the legislation before returning to the Senate for a final debate and vote by June 7.

“This should give stakeholders, governments, business, law enforcement agencies and other Canadians a timeline for how and when the bill will be ultimately dealt with by the upper chamber,” Harder said in a statement.

It is conceivable that senators could vote to amend the bill, in which case it would have to go back to the House of Commons to decide whether to accept or reject the amendments.

If the government majority in the Commons rejected one or more amendments, the bill would then bounce back to the Senate, where senators would have to decide whether to insist on their amendments or acquiesce to the will of the elected chamber.

Since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau began transforming the Senate into a more independent, less partisan chamber two years ago, senators have been more inclined to advance amendments. However, the back-and-forth between the two parliamentary houses over Senate amendments has generally taken only a day or two and the Senate, thus far, has always ultimately bowed to the will of the Commons.

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