The Liberal-dominated Senate voted yesterday to remove the mandatory minimum sentence requirement for some drug offenders from Conservative legislation - for the first time substantially altering a key plank in the government's tough-on-crime agenda.
The amendments come six months after the bill was passed in the House of Commons with the support of Liberal MPs, but only weeks before the Liberals lose their majority in the Senate, and with it their ability to change government legislation.
"What has happened in their party that we get this disconnect between the Liberals in the House of Commons and the Liberals in the Senate?" Justice Minister Rob Nicholson asked shortly after the results of the late afternoon vote. "There's going to be a lot of people very disappointed when they hear that they are weakening the bill when it comes to pot producers."
The amended Bill C-15, which makes changes to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, was passed in the Senate by a vote of 49 to 43. All four independent senators voted with the Liberals to change the legislation.
The Conservatives were solidly against the amendments. But Tory Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, who in 2002 chaired the Senate committee that recommended legalizing marijuana, was notably absent. He had been in his seat earlier in the day.
The bill would require a person who is found guilty of trafficking, and who had been convicted of another drug offence within the past 10 years, to serve a minimum prison term of one year.
As amended by the Senate, it would still allow judges to impose harsh sentences on drug traffickers when they are deemed to be warranted. But mandatory terms would be applicable only if the offender had spent a year or more behind bars for their previous conviction - a change designed to exempt minor criminals.
The amendments also allow a person to be found with 200 marijuana plants before they would have to serve a minimum sentence of six months. The original bill imposed the minimum sentence at five or more plants.
And the Senate changes would exempt aboriginal offenders. Although the bill allows drug criminals to avoid the minimum sentence if they participate in a treatment program, the senators said many aboriginals live in areas where those programs are scarce.
The Senate has taken previous runs at the government's crime bills, but major changes have been rejected on the Senate floor.
The vote yesterday may have been one last show of strength by Liberal senators who are about to lose their upper hand in the Senate.
By early January, the Conservatives will have more senators than any other party. And by November next year, assuming Prime Minister Stephen Harper continues to appoint Tories, they will assume an absolute majority over the Liberals and the remaining Progressive Conservatives.
The bill will now go back to the House of Commons where MPs can strip out the amendments. But it could end up bouncing back and forth between the two Houses until the Conservatives dominate the Senate or an election is called.
In the Commons, Liberals have generally fallen in step behind the government to pass laws that, not long ago, would have seemed out of line with their political philosophy. Some readily admit, off the record, that as a party they are afraid of being labelled "soft on crime" by the Conservatives.
The Vancouver Police Department yesterday held a news conference to express its concerns about the passage of C-15 with the Liberal amendments.
"We felt that the legislation, as written, was sound," Inspector Brad Desmarais, leader of the VPD's anti-gang and drug section, told reporters after the vote.
"My understanding is that their focus, their concern, was that the police would be targeting mom-and-pop and starving-college-student grows in the bedroom. But trust me, a 200-plant grow is a viable commercial enterprise that makes a lot of easy, tax-free money," he said.
Police in Halifax echoed the concerns expressed by police in Vancouver. "We would support Vancouver's position and we would view these changes as providing loopholes for criminals to use to avoid sentencing," said Police Constable Brian Palmeter, speaking for the department.
With a report from Ian Bailey in Vancouver