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Justin Trudeau was cruising through British Columbia in an RV with his two kids, his pregnant wife and a couple of staffers when he delivered an impromptu promise to legalize cannabis.

It was the summer of 2013 and Mr. Trudeau, who had recently been elected federal Liberal Leader, decided to mix a family holiday with a political tour from Banff to Vancouver. During a stop in Kelowna, he dropped the announcement that took the crowd by surprise – as well as his aides.

It was a signal moment on the long road to legalization of the drug, a drive that came to fruition Tuesday evening when the Senate passed Bill C-45, the Cannabis Act. Although he was initially only in favour of decriminalization, from that summer day in 2013 Mr. Trudeau has been a key driver in the government’s push for full legalization.

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In Kelowna, dressed informally in a purple polo shirt, the future prime minister was talking to supporters when he spotted a sign calling for the decriminalization of cannabis.

“I’m actually not in favour of decriminalizing cannabis, I’m in favour of legalizing it. Tax and regulate,” he said to applause. “It’s one of the only ways to keep it out of the hands of our kids, because the current war on drugs, the current model, is not working.”

Related: Parliament ends Canada’s 95-year prohibition on cannabis

Opinion: With marijuana milestone, Trudeau overcomes political inertia

While he was a new convert to legalization, Mr. Trudeau placed the measure at the centre of the 2015 Liberal platform and, as Prime Minister, made sure the promise became reality. He put his ministers of Justice, Health and Public Safety in charge of the file and called on Liberal MP and former Toronto police chief Bill Blair to forge a national consensus around a system of strict regulations.

Mr. Trudeau was behind plans to give 75 per cent of the revenue from a new excise tax on cannabis to the provinces, arguing from the start the move was not designed to enrich federal coffers. Last week, he ensured that all Canadians could engage in home cultivation, defending his plan against Quebec and Manitoba, who want to ban their citizens from growing cannabis for personal use.

Cannabis users, experts and politicians have advocated for the loosening of the prohibition on cannabis for decades, including the Le Dain Commission in 1973 and a Senate committee chaired by Pierre Claude Nolin in 2002. The courts gave Canadians legal access to medical cannabis starting in 2001, but recreational cannabis remained illegal.

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When the Liberal Party as a whole endorsed legalization at a convention in Ottawa in 2012, Mr. Trudeau and the Liberal caucus members continued to defend decriminalization.

Still, current and former Liberal officials said Mr. Trudeau started to develop a new position around that time, based on his contacts with young Liberals and people whose lives were affected by prohibition. The legalization movement had also started in Colorado and Washington State in late 2012, which eased some of the concerns over the reaction of the American government to a similar move in Canada.

When Mr. Trudeau decided to inject pizzazz into his 2013 tour of B.C., he was proactively staking out a position that could steal progressive votes from the NDP, which was only promising to decriminalize cannabis.

Cannabis legalization: What is your province or territory doing? A guide

Two days later, at a news conference in Vancouver, Mr. Trudeau explained that the current system was failing as Canadian youth were among the biggest users in the world and that decriminalization, while easier to achieve, would not remove organized crime from the market.

“I have evolved in my own thinking,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters. “I was more hesitant to even decriminalize not so much as five years ago. But I did a lot of listening, a lot of reading and a lot of paying attention to the very serious studies that have come out and I realize that going the road of legalization is actually a responsible thing to look at and to do.”

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Throughout the process, Mr. Trudeau stuck to the notion of imposing strict controls on a new legal market for recreational cannabis. The message was reinforced when he chose Mr. Blair to be the government’s point man on the file. Because of a glut of ministers from the Greater Toronto Area, Mr. Blair did his job without a cabinet position, but as a parliamentary secretary.

“Quite frankly, for me, titles weren’t as important as meaningful work. When the Prime Minister asked me to take this on … it probably wouldn’t have been my first choice, but I saw an opportunity to do it right,” Mr. Blair said in an interview.

The other key player on the file was Anne McLellan, the former Liberal Minister of Justice, Health and Public Safety who ran a nine-member task force to develop the framework for legal cannabis. She worked closely with Mr. Blair and kept the Prime Minister abreast of her plans, coming down with a report that offered a blueprint for the proposed legislation that was introduced the following spring.

“I would like to think that most of the recommendations were accepted because they spoke to what we heard, they spoke to common sense,” said Ms. McLellan, a Calgary-based lawyer who continues to work in the cannabis industry.

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