What lobbyists are watching for as Senate scrutinizes cannabis bill: Lobby Monitor

Senate of Canada chamber. Public Domain. Photo by Makaristos.

News | by: Beatrice Paez

As the Senate pores over the cannabis bill, one of the biggest questions hanging over those deliberations for some lobbyists is how far-reaching the Red Chamber’s tweaks will be.

“Everybody is looking for clarity and certainty,” said Shane Mackenzie, an associate consultant at Ensight Canada, in a phone interview. What the Senate’s independent contingent has made clear though is that “anything is better than the status quo, and they will pass the bill even if they see it as a slightly flawed bill when it comes to the third-reading vote,” he added.

Given that the Liberals’ pledge to end the prohibition on recreational pot was a central campaign promise, hobbling the bill’s passage altogether would not be an option for an unelected Senate. Mackenzie expects the legislative math in support of legalization to mirror last month’s vote supporting legalization in principle. The Senate passed it at second reading by a vote of 44-29, with most members of the Independent Senators Group, the largest bloc, backing it.

Five committees are simultaneously studying the bill in detail, four of which are working toward a deadline of May 1 to wrap up their work. The Senate social affairs committee, headed by Liberal Sen. Art Eggleton, will determine which amendments will make the Senate floor.

Darrell Dexter, vice-chairman at Global Public Affairs and former premier of Nova Scotia, said over the phone that the Senate’s reform as a more autonomous institution is demonstrated by the fact that a “more robust” process has been set up to review the legislation. “For the most part, you see them doing an honest evaluation of the bill,” he added.

The Senate’s study of the cannabis legislation may not be the “perfect litmus test” for its level of independence, Mackenzie said. But its increasing willingness to mark up legislation has made watching the procedures and conventions unfold become a part of lobbyists’ regular viewing habits when the House is sitting.

“Usually, people aren’t deeply focused on the procedures and conventions and the nuances of the Red Chamber, but we’ve been getting lots of calls and interest as people are trying to follow this more closely,” he noted.

In a crowded space in which licensed producers and public-safety advocates alike are jockeying for more face time with the Senate, Mackenzie said it’s crucial for stakeholders to have a tailored engagement strategy that appeals to a particular senator’s interests, regardless of where they fall in the political spectrum.

“In talking to the [Senate], you have to factor in what their particular interests are and some of their past policy interests and connect [your own],” he said. “Every cannabis stakeholder needs to convince senators that their interests and their desired amendments are the most pertinent in the next several weeks.”

As one measure of the level of interest in cannabis within the influence industry, there are 131 active disclosure filings on the federal lobbyists’ registry, based on a search of “cannabis” on April 19. The word “marijuana” draws 49 entries, while Bill C-45, the official legislative tag, has 73.

Much of the discussion within the Senate has centred around public safety and security concerns — issues that are “well covered” in the bill, said Ivan Ross Vrána, vice-president of public affairs, at Hill + Knowlton Strategies, in a phone interview.

Ross is looking to see whether a provision allowing for further tweaks to regulations as issues emerge post-legalization will be included in the final draft of the legislation.

Mackenzie noted that there has been a lot discussion about the minimum age and expects that focus to continue. In addition, “they’ve been very focused on packaging, but they still have yet to get into the issues around edibles, high-end consumer products and innovative technologies,” he said.

Health Canada’s draft regulations indicate the federal government is opting to require producers to dress their products in plain packaging as means of dampening its appeal among youth. Products have to bear a yellow tag that comes with a health warning and a red stop sign that has a marijuana leaf in order to alert consumers about the health risks.

The cannabis industry has pushed for the ability to establish distinctive brands to draw people to the regulated market, which its advocates argue will help the government achieve its goal of displacing the illicit market.

The final vote in the upper chamber is scheduled to take place by June 7.

(As published in The Lobby Monitor)