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It’s not the Senate’s job to block marijuana bills: Senator Pratte
It’s not the Senate’s job to block marijuana bills: Senator Pratte
March 28, 2018
image André Pratte
André Pratte
ISG - (Quebec - De Salaberry)

For several weeks now, the Senate has been immersed in the study of bills C-45 and C-46. The former implements a national framework for cannabis legalization, while the latter introduces changes to the Criminal Code’s impaired driving provisions. You can expect to hear a lot more about our debates as we get closer to the end of June, the deadline the Trudeau government has set itself for the adoption of both bills.

On the one hand, the Liberal government absolutely wants to keep to that deadline. On the other, the Conservative opposition is attempting by any means to delay the adoption of the bills, if only to embarrass the government. Caught between the two are 43 independent senators (out of 93).

Between now and the summer recess, every one of them will have a variety of difficult decisions to make. Indeed, there will be as many votes as proposals for amendments and procedural motions, all of which will have a determining influence on the fate of these bills.

Two central questions will determine my approach during these debates.

First, am I in favour of legalization or not? I already answered that question a few months ago: I agree with legalization. The failure of prohibition has been abundantly demonstrated over the past 40 years. Legalization is not a miracle solution, but it does provide advantages over the status quo.

At the very least, legalization will allow us to launch large education campaigns on the potential harms of cannabis, to ensure the safety of cannabis products for consumers, and finally to decriminalize a behaviour which in many regards is neither more nor less serious than the consumption of alcohol.

The second question I will ask myself is, in a debate of this importance, what is the role of the Senate? Even if a majority of Canadians are in favour of this government initiative, many have asked us to prevent legalization. Intervening with this purpose in mind, however, would run counter to our constitutional role.

Indeed, the Salisbury Convention, which we inherited from the House of Lords, states that the Upper Chamber must never oppose a bill designed to keep an electoral commitment made by the elected government. The Liberals were indeed elected in the fall of 2015 on a promise to legalize marijuana. Who are we, unelected parliamentarians, to prevent the government from making good on that promise to Canadians?

It would also not be legitimate for the Senate to unduly delay the implementation of that promise. Of course, Senators must play their legislative role, which is to study bills C-45 and C-46 carefully, listen attentively to the views of concerned Canadians, and propose improvements if needed. Once a reasonable period of time has been devoted to that work, the time to vote will be upon us.

What is a reasonable period of time? Bill C-46 was submitted to the Senate on Nov. 1, 2017, and Bill C-45, on Nov. 28. On June 1, 2018, we will have had these bills before us for five and six months, respectively. Committees will have heard many witnesses, and all senators will have had ample opportunity to express themselves at length. We will still have a month’s work left.

For those who would still seek to postpone the deadline further, we will have no choice but to conclude that the goal is not greater scrutiny of the bills, but rather to mirror the objective announced by the leader of the Conservative Party, Andrew Scheer, last November: that is, to “block” the legislation.

We have not reached this point yet. For the moment, senators are conscientiously examining both bills. Whether they are for or against legalization, they share the same concern, that of protecting the health of Canadians, particularly young Canadians.

This very concern will result in several of us moving amendments. It is too soon to say whether such amendments will be passed or not, and if they are, whether they will be accepted in whole or in part by the government. One thing is certain: it is through this type of rigorous legislative work, focused on the interests of the population, and ideally devoid of partisanship, that the Senate is best able to convince Canadians of its usefulness.

Senator André Pratte represents De Salaberry, Quebec. He is deputy chair of the Senate Committee on National Finance and a member of the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs.