The Senate has passed a contentious bill to legalize pot, but Canadians cannot legally light up for several weeks to give provinces time to set up a retail regime, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould warned today. 

Last night, Senators passed C-45, the federal government’s bill to legalize recreational marijuana, with a 52-29 vote and two abstentions.

The bill stipulates the law does not come into force until a date is fixed by an order of the governor-in-council — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet.

The government has long said there will be a buffer of eight to 12 weeks between the bill’s passage and full legalization to allow provinces to get their systems up and running to sell recreational marijuana from storefronts.

“Cannabis for non-medical use is not legal yet. The law still remains the law,” Wilson-Raybould said during a news conference on Parliament Hill.

“The date that cannabis will become legal will be announced soon. Until then, I urge all Canadians to continue to follow the existing law until the Cannabis Act comes into force.”

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Calling it a “wholesale shift” in how the country deals with marijuana, the minister said the progressive legalization approach replaces a failed model that made organized criminals rich, and put vulnerable children at risk.

She called the legislative journey that ended with last night’s passage of the bill “historic.”

Wilson-Raybould also stressed that while a companion bill to strengthen laws around alcohol- and drug-impaired driving (C-46) has not yet passed — the Senate has gutted the bill, removing a key component that allowed for mandatory roadside screening — driving while under the influence is already a criminal offence.

Timeframe soon

The government had initially floated July 1 as the date for retail sales to begin but the timeline was pushed back as senators debated the bill at length. Under the current timeline, legalization is most likely to occur sometime in September.

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Until the bill receives royal assent — the last procedural leg of the legislative process — it will be illegal to transport cannabis. Thus, the federal government believes it will take weeks to formally establish a distribution system that will allow producers to transport their product to provincially run stores, or, depending on the province, private retailers.

Employees will have to be hired, screened and trained on the sale of the drug, too, meaning retail operations cannot materialize overnight even if there is a change to the law of the land.

Pressed for a date for when Canadians can legally buy and smoke pot, Wilson-Raybould said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will have more to say on that soon. The prime minister is holding a news conference at 4:30 p.m. today in the National Press Theatre.

No intention to challenge provinces

The Senate had proposed 46 amendments to the Cannabis Act. The Liberal government rejected 13 of those proposed changes last week — arguably the most consequential amendments, since those that accepted were generally technical in nature — including one provision that would have affirmed the provinces’ and territories’ right to ban home cultivation of marijuana.

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Quebec, Manitoba and Nunavut want to ban home cultivation. Today, Wilson-Raybould said the bill provides a “framework,” and that it is not the federal government’s intention to challenge provincial laws. She noted that a resident could challenge the bill, though.

In March, while appearing before a Senate committee, Wilson-Raybould said the federal government wouldn’t stop provinces from banning homegrown pot — but if a citizen decided to take the province or territory to court over the issue, the feds wouldn’t be silent.

“This is federal legislation and we fundamentally support our legislation and it would be incumbent upon us to defend it,” she told the committee.

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