Trudeau Plows Ahead With Legal Weed as Senators Throw Up Hurdles

(Bloomberg) -- A Senate vote this week on dozens of amendments to a bill legalizing recreational marijuana probably won’t substantially delay Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s push to open the market this summer.

The amended bill -- the Senate’s social affairs committee last week proposed 34 changes -- is due for a final vote Thursday. It’s expected to pass with amendments, and would then go back to the House of Commons to consider those changes. There is some urgency, with the summer break approaching. Trudeau’s government is flexing its muscle, pledging pot will be legalized this summer and signaling lawmakers won’t adjourn until the bill is passed.

Canadian lawmakers wouldn’t adjourn for summer until the pot bill has concluded its parliamentary process, a senior government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. That means the Senate won’t be able to delay things until the fall by dragging its feet or digging in.

“We will create a controlled and legalized framework for marijuana before the end of the summer,” Trudeau said in a Bloomberg Businessweek Debrief interview in Toronto last week. Government ministers pushed for the vote in early June, because after the law passes it could take up to 12 weeks for the legal market to open.

Impaired Drivers

Conservative senators are resisting the bill, which they say doesn’t address issues such as how police will test for impaired drivers and the health risks of young people smoking up. Carolyn Stewart Olsen said at a hearing last week the bill needs more than simple technical changes, and called it “extreme social change for the country.”

Still, it would be rare for the appointed Senate to kill or heavily delay legislation from an elected government. Trudeau has already pressured the upper chamber to make sure marijuana goes on sale in the next few months, drawing the same kind of line in the sand he did for getting the Trans Mountain pipeline built.

Tony Dean, who sponsored the legislation, said the bill could move quickly if the House of Commons accepts all the Senate amendments, and expects the market to open by the end of August or early September. Other changes proposed by the Senate include allowing provinces to ban home cultivation of cannabis plants, tweaks around penalties for improper use and the government’s future powers to regulate the system.

Work Together

It’s unclear how quickly the House and Senate can work together on passing the same bill into law if they disagree over the changes. Trudeau’s Liberal Party has a majority in the House, and the Senate’s 105 current members include a mix of Conservatives, former Liberals, independents mostly appointed by Trudeau and non-affiliated senators. The independents and ex-Liberals have enough for a majority, if they vote together.

Trudeau’s promise to get the market open this summer, provincial governments making preparations and the billions of dollars invested by companies will be enough pressure to get things moving, Beacon Securities analyst Vahan Ajamian said in a May 23 research note. “The Senate will not cause a meaningful disruption,” Ajamian wrote.

Trudeau’s leader of legislative operations in the House of Commons, Bardish Chagger, declined to comment through a spokeswoman on the timing of the legislation after Thursday, referring questions to the justice minister.

David Taylor, spokesman for Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, said by email the government looks forward to the vote on June 7 and “our government remains committed to legalization and strict regulation of cannabis happening this summer.”

OrganiGram Holdings Inc. Chief Executive Officer Greg Engel expects to be able to start shipping product in early July to be ready for the day the legal market opens. “I certainly don’t expect a delay of any significance,” he said in a phone interview.

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