SMITHS FALLS, Ont. — Seven members of the Senate of Canada walk into a giant marijuana grow-op.
Not long after, the senators and their staff have seen almost all there is to see at the headquarters of Canopy Growth Corp. in this southeastern Ontario town, just an hour's drive from Ottawa.
They saw the parking lot packed with cars, many of them pickup trucks owned by contractors expanding the government-licensed facility.
They saw the rooms full of cannabis plants growing tall under high-powered lights, the trimming room where freshly harvested cannabis bud is processed, the rooms where the potent bud is dried and packaged, and the high-security vault where the final product is stored before being shipped to registered medical cannabis users across Canada.
They saw a gleaming research and development laboratory, an enormous extraction device that turns valuable cannabis bud into even more valuable cannabis oil, and an encapsulating machine spitting out cannabis pills.
Now it's almost time to pose for a group photo. But first, Canopy Growth CEO Bruce Linton takes questions from the visitors.
"You've looked at the legislation moving forward through the Senate; is there anything, part of the legislation, that concerns you?" asks Sen. Ratna Omidvar, a member of the Independent Senators Group.Advertisement
"Outdoor growing," answers Linton. "This idea that you're going to put a fence around it… it's the dumbest thing you'll let us do."
Growing commercial cannabis outside, he says, could leave the crop vulnerable to theft by teenage interlopers flying drones.
"A fence doesn't have a ceiling, it doesn't have alarms, it has the ability for people to interact with it."
The next day, Omidvar raised Linton's issue in the upper chamber, asking Sen. Peter Harder, the government's representative in the Senate, whether outdoor growing should be examined by a Senate committee.
"He pointed out that his concern would be that it’s an open field, accessible by drones — now, I hadn’t thought about that — and that drones could fly in, and that could create another expression of criminalization," said Omidvar.
"That is exactly the kind of question that I would expect to be appropriate for committee," replied Harder.
The Cannabis Act, also known as Bill C-45, was passed by the House of Commons on Nov. 27. It arrived in the Senate a day later, and its fate now rests with the 105 unelected members of Canada's upper house of Parliament.
The Senate tour of Canopy Growth, which took place Monday, was organized by independent senator Tony Dean, who's sponsoring the Cannabis Act in the Senate. Dean, formerly a top public servant in Ontario and a professor of public policy at the University of Toronto, is a relative newcomer to the Senate, having been appointed in November 2016.
Dean was recovering from a medical procedure at his home in Toronto Monday and was unable to take the tour. In an hour-long phone interview the next day, he described the visit as just one part of a lengthy effort to educate Senators about the realities of cannabis legalization.
"I wanted to get out as much information and existing evidence and research to all senators across the chamber, as early as possible so that when the bill arrived it wouldn't be so much of a cold start," he said.
"I started early in the fall by sending a series of packages, basic information, a copy of the bill as it was in the House of Commons, legislative backgrounders, research on what we know about the harms of cannabis that have been well-documented."
Dean's educational campaign included "a series of seminars to which all the senators were invited," including meetings with the co-chairs of the federal cannabis legalization task force, key policy-makers from the federal departments of Justice and Health, and researchers from the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.
He also made his own database of research on cannabis available to all his fellow senators.
"This was probably the biggest surprise of all to the Senate community," he said. "That's what you think would be done. But these things, I think, are the right thing to do. There's no point in staying in our institutional silos and steaming away, thinking about how we can pull a fast one on the other guys.
"I mean, there's quite a bit of that in the Senate, but I don't subscribe to that way of doing business."
The Senate is meant to serve two purposes, according to Emmett Macfarlane, an associate professor of political science at the University of Waterloo. First, the upper house is supposed to represent the interests of Canada's regions, although Macfarlane notes this hasn't always worked in practice.
"The other key feature of the Senate, in theory, was meant to be that it's an institution that gives sober second thought" to legislation passed by the House of Commons without the distractions of "grubby politics," said Macfarlane, who provided unpaid advice to the Trudeau government on reforming the Senate appointments process, beginning in late 2015.
Despite Sen. Dean's efforts to give his colleagues credible information about cannabis legalization, the Senate's debate over Bill C-45 so far has shown that different groups of senators are gleaning their sober second thoughts from entirely different sets of facts. (Conservative Sen. Claude Carignan, the Opposition critic for Bill C-45 and its impaired-driving companion Bill C-46, said his caucus keeps its own research database on cannabis.)
During debates, a number of senators have made comments with undercurrents of the moral panic known popularly as "reefer madness."
That fearful tone was on full display when the federal ministers of health, justice, and public safety took questions from senators in a rare, televised session on Feb. 6.
"Minister, are you jeopardizing the health of our kids by creating a whole new generation of smokers?" Conservative Sen. Judith Seidman asked Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor.
Liberal Sen. Serge Joyal suggested the government was allowing "organized crime" to invest in legal cannabis companies via offshore bank accounts.
"It’s mind-boggling to see who is financing the companies that have a permit," Joyal said.
'It’s mind-boggling to see who is financing the companies that have a permit' – Liberal Sen. Serge Joyal suggesting the government was allowing "organized crime" to invest in legal cannabis companies via offshore bank accounts
"Did you obtain any legal opinions regarding the risk of class-action lawsuits seeking billions of dollars in damages and compensation being filed against the Government of Canada, which is putting this system in place, against the businesses and provincial Crown corporations that will oversee distribution, and against the cannabis producers?" asked Sen. Carignan.
"Your legislation allows every household in Canada to have four huge marijuana plants," said Conservative Sen. Denise Batters. "With this minimum age and this unprecedented accessibility, it cannot be said that your government is protecting kids."
Dean expressed concern that some of his fellow senators have focused exclusively on the potential harms of cannabis legalization. The Health Department has already made those harms abundantly clear, he said.
"We've got these people jumping up and down and saying, 'My God, the government doesn't realize that cannabis is harmful,'" he said. "Why would they say that? Why on earth would they say that, when that's uncontested?
"When you look at this issue through a political lens, and perhaps your interest is in possibly delaying it, or you'd rather not see a new regime for cannabis instituted, you're going to selectively use data that may be outside of the mainstream consensus," he said.
Senators "don't need to be moving to extreme positions or spiriting up arguments that are on the crazy edge of cannabis research," he said. "We know all that we need to know to sensibly review this bill."
The Senate's 2002 Report of the Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, chaired by the late Conservative Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, recommended legalization and regulation of cannabis.
In November, Conservative party leader Andrew Scheer told La Presse Canadienne that Senate Conservatives were "focused on the goal" of "blocking" C-45, and would use "all the democratic tools" to do so.
It's technically possible the Senate could refuse to approve Bill C-45, Macfarlane said, but "not likely, based on what we have seen in the past two-plus years. We haven't reached a point where the Senate has simply refused to pass a bill."
Sen. Art Eggleton, a member of the Independent Liberal caucus, was on Monday's tour at Canopy Growth.
"We recognize that the House of Commons is the elected house," he said. "That's where the government is. We have to understand our role is a complementary role, not to compete with the wishes of the people as expressed in the House."
Last week, Senate Conservative leader Larry Smith told the chamber that his caucus "will not proceed in an obstructionist manner, as some in the media and elsewhere have seemed to suggest."
Conservative Sen. Claude Carignan echoed that sentiment in an interview Thursday.
"I can guarantee you that we are doing our job without pressure," said Carignan. "The Senate, it's a (place of) sober second thought, so we try to do our best without directive and pressure coming from the other side.
"We have a lot of jobs to do on this bill, a lot of issues. So we don't have to use technical, procedural tactics to delay this bill."
On Thursday, two days after the threat of procedural deadlines was raised by Sen. Peter Harder, Senate leaders agreed to hold a final vote on the third reading of the bill "on or before June 7."
That new deadline, however, means legalization of cannabis in Canada gets pushed back to late summer, at the earliest.
In a Thursday scrum on Parliament Hill, the health minister told reporters the provinces and territories would need "eight to 12 weeks for implementation" of legalization after Bill C-45 becomes law.
"Therefore, if you do the math, you can certainly see that it certainly won't be July 2018," Petitpas Taylor said.
The leaders of the various Senate groups also agreed on a timetable for completing study of Bill C-45 in five separate committees. Those committees, where the bulk of the Senate's policy work is done, could result in amendments to the bill being sent back to the House of Commons.
Carignan said the Conservative caucus is most concerned about health issues regarding youth, home cultivation, workplace impairment, drug prevention and impaired driving.
After touring the massive Canopy Growth facility, Sen. Kim Pate said she was concerned "about the notion of how many people are looking at this as a big business opportunity."
"I think for smaller communities, for Indigenous communities, for those who might want to be involved in economic development in this area, I wonder how much room is going to be left for those individuals if it's predominantly very large-scale operations like this," said Pate, who also wants to examine whether the bill should include some kind of amnesty for Canadians with criminal convictions related to cannabis.
Grant Mitchell, a non-affiliated senator who serves as government liaison to the Senate, was also on the tour. Mitchell said he "absolutely, fundamentally" supports Bill C-45.
"Certainly there has been a practice since the reforms, for senators to be more inclined to amend legislation than before, and certainly we've got a government that's been very open to accepting amendments," said Mitchell. "It's quite remarkable actually."
Sen. Mike Duffy said he was "delighted" to see that Canopy Growth's cannabis oil extraction device was manufactured in his native Prince Edward Island.
"I think most people, most Canadians, if they came here and saw what the issue was really about, they'd be surprised, and even perhaps relieved," he said during a post-tour reception in Canopy Growth's lobby.
"The issue," Duffy said upon being pressed for details, is "demonizing the demon weed."
"What we've got here is a pharmaceutical factory," he said.
Duffy, who resigned from the Conservative caucus to sit as an Independent in 2013 over an expense scandal that turned into a media circus, gave a wry smile when asked about the treatment of Bill C-45 by his former Tory colleagues.
"I'd be the last one you should ask about the Conservative caucus."