The study of Ottawa's proposed law covering drug-impaired driving has been suspended for two months in the Senate, leading Conservative senators to argue the entire cannabis-legalization plan should be delayed until the end of the year.
When it announced plans last year to legalize cannabis for recreational use, the federal government also promised to beef up Canada's impaired-driving law to deal with an expected increase of drivers under the influence of cannabis.
To achieve its dual goal, the government introduced Bill C-45 to legalize cannabis at the same time as Bill C-46, which creates new drug-impaired-driving offences and revamps the entire impaired-driving regime.
Both bills were adopted last year in the House of Commons, but they have been moving more slowly than the government expected in the Senate.
Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor has already acknowledged the government will not meet its initial plan to have legal cannabis on sale before June 30. The government revised its target date to late August or early September; Bill C-45 makes it clear cannabis will become legal at a date set by cabinet, not when the legislation passes.
Bill C-46 has been in the Senate since November but, after hearing from more than 40 witnesses on the topic, the Senate committee on legal affairs has yet to undertake its clause-by-clause review of the proposed legislation.
The steering committee of the legal affairs committee has now decided to suspend its study of Bill C-46 until May, in order to review the portions of Bill C-45 that deal with the Criminal Code.
"We will go back at C-46 in May with more hearings, as we still need to hear from some people, with the intention of sending the legislation to the Senate for third reading in June," said Conservative senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu, who is vice-president of the steering committee.
Some of the new offences for drug-impaired driving that are created under C-46 will come into effect as soon as the legislation is adopted by Parliament, but other measures, dealing mostly with alcohol-impaired driving, will only be effective six months later to allow for police training. Under the current calendar, the full impaired-driving regime will not be in place before December at the earliest.
The Conservative Party has been arguing the federal government is proceeding too quickly with the legalization of cannabis. In particular, Mr. Boisvenu said, police services across Canada are still struggling to get ready for legalized cannabis.
"There is a weak spot in the government's plans, which is that the government would legalize a drug before it has fully confirmed the new powers that are given to police to control the situation," he said.
Mr. Boisvenu said there are ongoing concerns over some of the key details of the new regime, including the ability of law-enforcement authorities to identify and prosecute drug-impaired drivers.
Independent Senator André Pratte, who also sits on the legal affairs committee, said he agrees with the decision to suspend the study of Bill C-46. However, he added the Senate should move as quickly as possible when it resumes its study of the proposed legislation in May.
"We should not forget that police services are waiting for the legislation to be adopted to train their officers. One cannot simultaneously complain that not enough officers are trained and unduly delay the adoption of Bill C-46," Mr. Pratte said.
Another independent senator, Marc Gold, has argued Bill C-46 should not be held hostage by senators who are opposed to the legalization of cannabis.
"Bill C-46 stands on its own as a necessary step toward reducing the devastation caused by impaired driving. It should not be confused with or delayed by cannabis legalization," he said in an open letter in January.