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Senate starts debating cannabis bill, but no guarantee it will meet Canada Day deadline

People smoke cannabis during a Toronto rally in 2016. Some police groups and First Nations worry they won’t be ready for the consequences of legalization next year.

Mark Blinch/The Associated Press

The Senate has started to debate the legalization of cannabis, setting up a months-long showdown between proponents of Bill C-45 and those who oppose plans to open up the market by the government's self-imposed deadline of July 1.

The sponsor of the legislation, independent senator Tony Dean, launched the proceedings on Thursday, stating the plan is the best way to deal with the significant problems caused by widespread use among teenagers and young adults.

"There is a need to implement this legislation as soon as possible," he said in his speech. "Cannabis is harmful, easily available and frequently used by young Canadians. It's time for us to stop looking the other way."

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However, provinces, police groups and First Nations have argued that they will not all be ready in time to deal with the consequences of legalization, calling for delays before the market opens.

A new poll from the Angus Reid Institute found two-thirds of Canadians support legalization, but that 47 per cent of respondents said the July 1 timeline should be pushed back. The online survey of 1,510 respondents was conducted between Nov. 14 and 20, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 points.

In an interview, Mr. Dean said seven months should be enough to study and adopt the bill, although some of his colleagues have doubts about how fast it can proceed through the chamber.

The Senate is increasingly hard to predict, leaving everyone guessing about whether the bill will get through Parliament in time for next Canada Day. There are 34 Conservative senators, whose colleagues voted against C-45 in the House, but the intentions of the 39 members of the independent senators group (ISG), the 15 Liberals (who are not affiliated with the governing Liberals) and the four non-affiliated senators are less easy to evaluate.

Mr. Dean is calling for a structured debate in the Senate to ensure that everyone quickly gets a chance to speak on the bill instead of a process that takes weeks. He would also like to see the lead ministers on the file appear at a committee-of-the-whole to answer questions from all senators in one session.

Mr. Dean said meeting the deadline of July 1 is entirely feasible, adding the Senate would miss the mark only for political reasons.

"These are smart, experienced senators," he said. "They know how to roll up their sleeves and get this kind of work done. If there is a willingness to do it, it can be done."

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Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer recently said Conservative senators will strive to block Bill C-45, although party officials said their focus will be to get answers to all the questions that are raised by the government's plans.

Conservative senator Claude Carignan, who is his party's critic on the bill, called the July 1 target a "pipe dream," given what he has been hearing from critics of the legislation.

"That is the Prime Minister's deadline, it is not our deadline," he said.

Mr. Carignan, like other senators, also has concerns about Bill C-46, which creates a new regime to discourage people from driving when they are impaired by alcohol, drugs or a mix of the two.

Mr. Carignan said the legislation faces a number of hurdles given the lack of scientific knowledge and technological devices to determine the exact point at which a cannabis user is impaired.

"The danger with C-46 is that its implementation will be theoretical and that, in practice, it will not be enforceable," he said.

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Independent senator André Pratte said C-46 should be adopted "as quickly as possible" after appropriate review because it will help in the fight against impaired driving. Regarding C-45, Mr. Pratte said the July 1 deadline is a political one, rather than one imposed by the courts, and should not bind the Senate. On the other hand, he said the legislation should be able to go through a proper review before Parliament's summer recess.

"I think that within six months we are capable of adopting a piece of legislation, even if it is complex," Mr. Pratte said.

MADD Canada has written to senators to urge them to adopt C-46 quickly.

"Delay in the passage of Bill C-46 will negatively impact the ability of law enforcement agencies to detect drugged drivers and take them off our roads," said Andrew Murie, the chief executive officer of the organization, which fights impaired driving. "Drugs are present in fatal crashes nearly twice as often as alcohol. Yet, Canada's existing system does a very poor job of detecting drivers under the influence of drugs."

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