House of Commons Hansard #143 of the 37th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was species.

Topics

Her Royal Highness The Princess Margaret

11 a.m.

The Speaker

We were saddened to learn of the passing of Her Royal Highness,The Princess Margaret, on February 9.

I have written to Her Majesty The Queen to express the sympathy of the House of Commons on this sad occasion.

I now invite the House to rise and observe a minute of silence in memory of Her Royal Highness.

Business of the House

11:05 a.m.

The Speaker

It is my duty, pursuant to Standing Order 81(14), to inform the House that the motion to be considered tomorrow during the consideration of the business of supply is as follows:

That this House condemn the government for withdrawing from health-care funding, for no longer shouldering more than 14% of the costs of health care, and for attempting to invade provincial areas of jurisdiction by using the preliminary report by the Romanow Commission to impose its own vision of health care.

The motion, standing in the name of the member for Hochelaga--Maisonneuve, is votable.

Copies of the motion are available, or will be available, at the table.

The House resumed from November 7, 2001 consideration of the motion that Bill C-344, an act to amend the Contraventions Act and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (marijuana), be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Contraventions Act
Private Members' Business

11:05 a.m.

Canadian Alliance

Ken Epp Elk Island, AB

Mr. Speaker, I half expected the Liberal member, who had quite a bit of time to finish her speech, to stand up first, but I guess Monday mornings come too early for those who support the use of marijuana. I should not say that.

I have mixed feelings rising to speak to this motion because I would prefer that young people and adults not become involved in drugs which are addictive and harmful. I would be much happier if these things were not available, if the use of drugs, especially when it comes to harder drugs, would be such a taboo that people would simply not use them. However I also recognize that this is quite unrealistic.

We have a couple of major blights in that regard and both are legal. I am talking about cigarettes and alcohol. I know there are many people who use these substances in moderation and do not seem to suffer any long term ill effects. Yet I am aware of several people, in fact one of my friends, who I think it would be fair to say, is not alive today directly as a result of alcohol destroying his body. Many, because they have been impaired, have been involved in motor vehicle and boating accidents and as a result has had a huge devastation in the lives of those families and individuals who have involved themselves with drugs.

We now have the question of marijuana and whether it should be legalized. I have said that I would prefer that we not make drugs available to our children. They should be given activities and other things that challenge them without having to get into these chemical diversions.

How does one balance this off? On one hand, we could say that if they are in possession of this stuff there will be fines or jail as the law now stands. On the other hand, we could say that they can do whatever they want.

I am torn between the two opinions on this issue. I do not believe that we should have so much government intervention and so many rules and laws that try to control the minutest details of our lives. I would like to have a great deal more freedom. There are some laws which of course are necessary. We have very proper traffic laws regarding driving on the right side of the road, obeying speed limits and stopping at stop signs and red lights. Those are fine laws that we as a society agree with because they are to our benefit.

The question is would legalizing marijuana be to our societal benefit or should we continue to have a rule against it and there should be a restrictive law? It is my understanding that my colleague's bill would decriminalize it to the extent that possession of marijuana would no longer entail a criminal offence with jail sentences and a criminal record, but that it would be reduced to a fine for possession.

I do not know how other members in the House feel about it, but people who make a profit at the expense of our children are among the most despicable of our citizens. I think of the gangs and the organized crime that make money from child prostitution and from distributing drugs to our young people. That is absolutely despicable. I would like to see them stopped. Our young people are so precious and vulnerable in those young teen years and earlier.

I would really like to see drug dealers who go to schoolyards to try to suck young people and children into the use of their drugs, because it is a source of money for them, in jail. We do not need that. They have a very negative effect on our society.

However on the other hand, if young people smoke a toke, as they say, does that mean that they should go to jail? I do not know. They are more a victim than a participant, yet I would like to see something very tangible that would discourage them from becoming involved in this.

There are other arguments about marijuana. Certainly some say that it is not as harmful or addictive as the use of ordinary cigarettes. Just because one is legal and the other is not does not necessarily mean that we should conclude that it is bad that marijuana is illegal. In fact one of the things I really wonder about is the ability of this government and other governments, but this one particularly, to refuse to allow businesses that sell ordinary cigarettes to advertise. They put all sorts of restrictions on them without having declared it an illegal or dangerous substance.

When young people say that they can smoke marijuana and that it will not do them as much harm as smoking a pack of cigarettes every 12 hours, is a specious argument. I wish we would not give our young people those arguments. I really wish we would have very strong families who would by example show that the use of these substances is unnecessary. Therefore young people would not use them by their own choice, rather than by coercion of the law.

There is an interesting little sidelight here. I remember that cigarettes and liquor were not permitted in my grandfather's home. It was partially a religious thing that they did not touch it. Somehow my parents inherited that idea and we never had any liquor or cigarettes in our home.

I have confessed in the House before that one time I did smoke a cigarette. It made me feel very uncomfortable and I decided that it was a stupid thing to do. Why would one pull into one's lungs something that would make him cough uncontrollably and that cost money on top of that? I made an intellectual decision very young. I was in high school at the time. I found a pack of cigarettes, took one out, smoked it on the sly and decided it was not for me. That was it. My grandfather's and father's example carried on to me. I also would like to believe that it has been effective in preventing my own kids from smoking anything, either cigarettes, or marijuana or other things.

I believe the strongest way of prevention is having strong families who teach by word and by example that these things really are unnecessary. If one has a complete and full life, one does not need to either bolster or subdue it by the use of chemicals.

However in this case I have not yet decided whether I will support my colleague's bill. On one hand, I like the idea of the courts utilizing their resources to fight the real criminals who traffic in these substances instead of going after kids who happen to have a small amount in their possession. On the other hand, I am so hesitant to send a signal to our young people that it is okay them to do it.

There are medical and longer term psychological ramifications from the use of it. I would be very delighted if this blight were to be removed from our society. Whether retaining and strengthening the criminal law prohibiting it is the way to go is not clear to me at this time. At this stage I am firmly undecided.

Contraventions Act
Private Members' Business

11:15 a.m.

Bloc

Bernard Bigras Rosemont—Petite-Patrie, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am extremely pleased to rise today to speak to Bill C-344 presented by my colleague from Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca.

As far as the Bloc Quebecois and myself are concerned, unlike his Alliance colleague, we have no hesitations concerning this bill, and this is a bit of a paradox. A colleague of the member presenting the bill is not sure about supporting it. I wish to state that we will be in favour of Bill C-344 , an act to amend the Contraventions Act.

The purpose of amending the Contraventions Act is to decriminalize marijuana use. Under the current legislation, a person guilty of simple possession, that is of having in his or her possession less than 30 grams of marijuana, has a criminal record, is liable to imprisonment for six months and a $1,000 fine. This bill would impose only a fine. For a first offence, the amount of the fine would be $200; for the second, $500; for any subsequent offence, $1,000.

This is an important debate, and we must remember to make the distinction between what we are calling the decriminalization of marijuana for medical purposes, and the decriminalization of marijuana for other uses. The House adopted a motion, Motion No. 381, an initiative of the Bloc Quebecois that I moved. This motion was adopted by more than 88% of the members present in the House of Commons.

This motion called on the federal government to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes. This motion was adopted on May 25, 1999. We in the Bloc Quebecois believed, and still believe, that this is about compassion. How can we set up legal and political restrictions on the use of marijuana by someone who is in the terminal stages of a disease? Whether they have AIDS, multiple sclerosis or cancer, people may want to purchase and use a substance that, for them, is a medication. Of the members present in the House at the time, 88% supported this motion.

The issue raised by our colleague from the Alliance today is part of a larger debate on the decriminalization of marijuana. The debate has reached a whole new level in fact. There are all kinds of questions to be asked before voting. On the one hand, we have to remember that the World Health Organization, the WHO, in an significant and exhaustive report, concluded that marijuana was less harmful than alcohol and tobacco. The WHO is not some group of novice doctors. It is a solid organization, a credible organization, that demonstrated that the ill effects of marijuana are less harmful than either alcohol or tobacco.

Our colleague is asking us to reflect on a different issue. Should someone in possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana be considered a criminal? Should this person—as is the case under the existing legislation—be subject to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail for having possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana?

And more important, should he have a criminal record? Should his future be ruined? For it must not be forgotten that when we have a criminal record for possession of marijuana, our whole future may be ruined. This debate is therefore a healthy one and I think that parliament should give its speedy attention to this.

The member who introduced this bill is not the only one who thinks that marijuana should be decriminalized. Those responsible for enforcing the legislation, including chiefs of police and the RCMP, have indicated that marijuana needs to be decriminalized, and soon.

Naturally, the associations I have just mentioned are not completely in favour of the bill introduced by the Canadian Alliance member, because they feel that the fines are a little lower than those provided for in the legislation. They think, however, that a major step towards decriminalization must be taken.

I am also thinking of the Canadian Medical Association, which has already indicated its unqualified support for decriminalizing marijuana in its monthly journal. In addition, the latest most up to date poll shows that 22% of Canadians feel that someone with less than 30 grams of marijuana in their possession should be considered a criminal. Only 22% of Canadians feel that someone should have a criminal record and be liable to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, compared to 40% in 1985.

There has therefore been an important shift in Canadian public opinion, which we, as parliamentarians, who represent this public opinion, should be listening to and taking into consideration.

The senate committee on drugs, chaired by Senator Nolin, has already examined this issue. In addition, I would remind the House that, following an opposition motion, we struck a committee chaired by a Liberal member, which is now examining the issue of drugs. This committee will be in Toronto in a few weeks to take a closer look at the situation. So we are already looking at this issue.

Different avenues are being considered, including decriminalization. We must wait for the report, but it is clear that an issue such as this must be debated and those actually affected taken into consideration.

A recent federal report said that $150 million would be saved if we were not as tough on small users. We must go after the source, and not individual citizens who, sometimes, perhaps in an ill-considered moment, decide to have in their possession less than 30 grams of marijuana.

On January 21, 2001, I proposed that Canada pass a bill patterned on the model developed by the Belgians, in other words, that marijuana be decriminalized, but that we be able to identify those members of the public who use it in a socially irresponsible manner. For instance, it is no more acceptable for someone to decide to drink alcohol and drive than it is for someone else to use marijuana and do the same.

There is therefore no doubt that the member's bill must be amended, but it provides a good point of departure for debate.

Contraventions Act
Private Members' Business

11:25 a.m.

Canadian Alliance

Chuck Strahl Fraser Valley, BC

Mr. Speaker, many people want to read a lot of things into Bill C-344 today. Some have decided that since the word marijuana is in the document it gives them a free reign to talk about the use of medicinal marijuana or the addictive quality of drugs in general or even whether or not this is within provincial or federal jurisdiction. Some have even wondered whether we should be discussing it at all.

Debate arises about whether marijuana is a gateway drug or a problem made worse when teenagers are involved. It is open season on marijuana issues and the reason is clear. The federal government refused to deal with this issue in a serious way.

It has been left to an opposition MP, the member for Esquimalt--Juan de Fuca, to broach the subject and get the House involved, as it should be. We need to have this debate and we should be involved.

The situation in Canada right now is approaching untenable. While there are laws on the books regarding the possession of marijuana, a first time conviction for simple possession seldom means very much in a financial or punitive sense.

A convicted person typically faces only a $50 fine. It is not much of a preventive measure. The most serious part about the whole conviction is the criminal conviction itself. Every person convicted under the current law faces a lifetime with a criminal record. It seems to me that the essence of the argument revolves around whether a person should face sanctions for a lifetime for the possession of marijuana.

The bill proposes changes that would increase the average fine for possession of marijuana to $250 for first time offenders; $500 for a second offence and $1,000 for the third offence. The difference is that the offence becomes a summary conviction, not a criminal offence. It would be more like a traffic violation, still illegal and frowned upon. An individual would still be pulled over by the police. However the individual would not necessarily end up in court.

Nothing changes the criminal offence of trafficking or selling to minors. In fact, because possession would become a summary conviction, the number of tickets written by police would likely increase dramatically since it would be easier for police to write it out than to press for a court case and all the expense and so on that goes with that.

Fines and possible deterrents would be higher under the bill than the current status quo. It would mean that some people, such as those who belong to the Marijuana Party for example, would not support the bill because they would say it is too punitive.

Let me run through the arguments in favour of the bill. Currently police catch a lot of people with a joint or two of marijuana, however only a few cases are taken to court. Why is that? It is because it does not have the time or resources to push each case to the limit. This means there is a huge amount of discretion placed in the hands of police, not because it wants to convict some and let others off the hook, but because the police and the courts would simply be overwhelmed if each case was pushed to the limit.

What then happens is that users, police and the courts soon recognize that the law is not being applied evenly and becomes something everyone tries to work around instead of applying evenhandedly and without prejudice. Once the law is flouted this much it becomes a mockery to everyone involved.

The second reason to be in favour of the bill is that the price paid for simple possession is not reasonable in a free, just and open society. I am not talking about fines but about the criminal record itself. If someone has a record the effect on his or her life is truly life changing. That individual cannot get a passport nor travel to certain countries, including the U.S.A.

It is highly unlikely that a person with a record would get a job where a criminal record check is important, including many public service jobs, security roles, working in a bank, in securities, selling real estate and so on. Today, young kids, perhaps in their only foray into the drug world, would receive a conviction that would dog them for the rest of their days.

The third argument runs like this. Alcohol and cigarettes, both legal drugs made available through the aegis of the government, cause tens of thousands of deaths and cause society billions of dollars each year in health and societal costs, yet there is no equivalent sanction for them. In fact the government delights in the tax dollars brought in each year with these mind and health altering drugs. They are as addictive and possibly more destructive than marijuana.

Why the double standard? What about the hypocrisy involved? North American leaders like Bill, I smoke but I did not inhale Clinton, and our own former prime minister Kim Campbell have admitted trying marijuana. How can these same lawmakers then throw the book at those who are doing the same thing?

Of course there are counter arguments. The active ingredient in marijuana today is many times stronger than it was when the flower children were using it in the sixties and seventies? For those out there who used the stuff when they were younger and think it is no big deal, I believe they need to realize that the stuff they used is unlike anything today. In fact, what is readily available to youngsters is almost a different drug in its potency. It is in a different league and the effects on the body and the mind are considerably different.

I am sorry to disagree with those who say it is just another herb and we should not worry about it because it is a potent drug. There is a body of evidence that suggests that kids who start experimenting with drugs at a young age will get hooked on them if for no other reason than that they simply do not have the discretion or willpower to just say no.

Why do tobacco companies target their efforts on young smokers? It is because if they can get people experimenting with tobacco before they are 18 or 19 years of age, they might become hooked. The number of people who start smoking after 20 years of age is negligible. The younger they can target people and get them started, the easier it is to get them hooked.

It is the same thing with alcohol. If we watch sporting events on TV, we would swear that it is almost impossible to have fun without a case of beer under our arms. These messages work their way into the minds of young children and before we know it they are looking for miniature Stanley cups in a 12 pack instead of a corn flakes box. These companies know how to get young impressionable people to try their products.

By taking some of the sanctions off of marijuana use we risk the possibility of some people interpreting that to mean it is all right to get into the drug scene.

There is contradictory evidence about whether or not marijuana is a drug that would lead to experimentation with other drugs. Those who treat cocaine addicts note that addicts are 84 times as likely to have had a marijuana problem along the way than those who have no addictions at all.

At the public meeting I held last week on this subject, one addiction counsellor suggested that 100% of the people he treated for cocaine and heroin addiction started their drug experimentation with marijuana. Of course everyone at the meeting, including the experts I brought in, agreed that the majority of people who use marijuana recreationally will never move on to hard drugs and likely will never be addicted to anything in their lives. However, for others the path is not a pretty one. Many of them curse the day when they decided to try the bud for the first time.

There is an argument, again brought up at the public meeting I had last week, that some societies which put an extreme sanction on the possession of marijuana are successful in reducing the number of people who actually ever try it. The example used was Japan where possession of marijuana and drugs is generally treated as a very harsh offence. Japan has a very low level of drug use, perhaps because its society is of a different make up than ours. That is in part the case. Also in part it treats drug possession of any kind very seriously and the message it sends to young and old is that drug possession is not only unwise, but it is a criminal offence that will get a person thrown in the slammer.

I was asked if I ever tried marijuana when I was young? The answer is, no I did not. When I was a young impressionable youth marijuana use was a criminal activity. That did dissuade me from trying it. Whereas I may have had a drink of alcohol because alcohol was a legal substance, even if it was not legal for a minor. The fact that using marijuana was a criminal offence made a difference to me. I did not try it. Once I became 19 or 20 I frankly was not interested in it. Age does make a difference in some cases.

What became apparent at the public meeting and in other discussions I have had is that no one should underestimate both the societal and family examples that we all portray, especially to young people, about whether or not it is a good idea to try marijuana. There are all kinds of legal and illegal drugs out there. We can name it and it is available to us. However the longer we can get young people to put off their drug experimentation, the more balance their approach will be to it. I worry that the youngsters of 10 and 12 years of age who are trying marijuana for the first time do not have the discretion necessary to make a wise decision.

I did a survey on the topic that I sent out in my householder last month. I have had over a thousand responses to date. The results are fairly evenly split. Some 56% of the people in my riding have said they want to legalize or decriminalize the use of marijuana. Some 44% have said they want to maintain the status quo where we throw the book at people for simple possession. Other surveys show that 90% of people endorse the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes only. The debate seems to be over in my riding at least.

I will be coming to a conclusion by the time we vote on the way the issue should be handled. I support the gist of the bill that marijuana should be decriminalized. The House should consider doing so at this time. We should get the bill into committee and get the rest of the details figured out.

Contraventions Act
Private Members' Business

11:35 a.m.

NDP

Svend Robinson Burnaby—Douglas, BC

Mr. Speaker, I rise in support of the bill currently before the House which was proposed by my colleague from Esquimalt--Juan de Fuca.

We are debating Bill C-344 as a private member's bill. Although I am the member of parliament for Burnaby--Douglas I speak in this debate as a private member as do all members. I do not purport to speak on behalf of my caucus colleagues. There are a range of views in my caucus on the issue. However it is fair to say that on the issue of decriminalization and the medical use of marijuana the New Democratic Party strongly supports the changes being proposed.

Bill C-344 is an important step but does not go far enough. We should recognize that the issue of drug use should be dealt with as a health issue and not a criminal issue.

Our present approach to the issue of marijuana is steeped in hypocrisy. I cannot tell the House how many times I have spoken with young people who say the most destructive drugs in our society are alcohol and tobacco. Yet those drugs are entirely legal. This does not mean by any stretch of the imagination that we should encourage the use of marijuana. It means we should recognize that the so-called war on drugs has been an abject failure in every sense of the word. Many have come to that conclusion.

A number of decades ago the Le Dain commission recommended decriminalization of marijuana yet there has been effectively no change whatsoever. Last year a committee of the European parliament adopted a report on drug use that came to the blunt conclusion that “legal sanctions against drug possession and use appear to have no effect whatsoever”. The report recommended European nations press ahead in the direction many have already taken: that treating drug use is a matter for health professionals and not police officers. This means making the use and possession of small amounts of drugs de facto legal while concentrating resources on health and social programs to reduce the harms of drug abuse.

If we legalized the possession of drugs for personal use one might ask whether it would not encourage their use. Would it not encourage more young people to use drugs and thus have a negative impact on their health? The answer is no.

At a conference last year in Stockholm the World Health Organization released a major international survey of drug use by teenagers. The results were revealing. The survey found that 41% of American teens had used marijuana or hashish compared with 16% of European teens. It found that 16% of American teens had used amphetamines and 10% had used LSD compared with 6% of European teens who had used illegal drugs aside from marijuana. This is the latest evidence which indicates that the United States, which has the highest spending and most punitive drug laws in the world, also has the highest rates of teenage drug use.

The war on drugs is not working. There are a half million people in American jails as a result of the unfair and destructive war on drugs. I hope we in Canada can join with a number of other jurisdictions in recognizing that this is a health issue.

Unfortunately there is tremendous pressure from the American government. The International Narcotics Control Board is a 13 member United Nations body set up to monitor compliance with international treaties banning drugs. It is effectively run and dominated by the United States. It recently attacked Canada by saying we were not cracking down hard enough on marijuana use.

What was the response of the Liberal Minister of Justice? She said it was clear we could do more and that we must do more. She said the government was seized with the issue and that we would put more resources toward it.

This approach is madness. It is not working. It is breeding contempt for an unfair, unjust and hypocritical law. While I support the bill of the hon. member as a step in the right direction, we should be going further. We should recognize that the answer is not just decriminalization but ending criminal sanctions and ensuring we put resources into education, awareness and prevention.

We must recognize that the war on drugs takes a terrible human toll. Drug users are in many cases forced to obtain their supplies from the black market. What does this mean? It means more crime. Prices become so high that addicts who finance their habit by committing crimes must commit more crimes to purchase them than if the drugs were legally available.

Drug users, particularly hard drug users, are pulled into a world of filthy needles, poisoned drugs, and pushers bent on selling them more addictive and dangerous fixes. They have no access to basic information such as the strength of the drug in question, the recommended maximum dosage for first time users, or the effect of mixing with other drugs such as alcohol.

I received correspondence from Alan Randel of Victoria, British Columbia who wrote to me about how his youngest son Peter died in February 1993 after ingesting heroin with friends. Only Peter died. Of course, too many have died.

My colleague from Vancouver East has been eloquent on the issue. She has spoken out about the terrible toll the futile and destructive war on drugs has taken in her constituency. One need only go to Main and Hastings to see the impact of it.

The young brother of a close friend of mine, Tim Pelzer, died of an overdose of drugs. Todd Pelzer should not have died. He got caught up in the vicious and destructive cycle of that element. It took his life. It is taking too many lives. It is taking the lives of street people in Vancouver East. It is taking the lives of people across Canada. It must stop. The destructive and futile war must stop. That is why I support Bill C-344 as a step in the right direction. However it does not go far enough.

Canadians asked themselves what on earth was going on when Ross Rebagliati, the world champion snowboarder, was initially barred from the United States. Why was he barred? He admitted to having smoked a few joints in the past. That is not acceptable.

We have an opportunity to change the laws. A committee of the House is examining the current drug legislation. I urge its members to be bold and recommend major changes to the laws. The Senate has a committee chaired by Senator Nolin which is making similar recommendations.

Much more can and should be done in this area. Yes, of course there are health concerns. However a number of studies have indicated marijuana may not be as serious as tobacco or alcohol. Smoking marijuana does not seem to cause lung cancer, emphysema or birth anomalies in fetuses, according to John P. Morgan of the City University of New York Medical School. Yes, there are symptoms of lung damage but not the life threatening conditions seen among tobacco smokers.

Mr. Morgan appeared as a witness before the Senate committee. He pointed out that while cannabis contains as many harmful compounds and irritants as tobacco, even heavy marijuana smokers do not smoke nearly as much as tobacco smokers. As he points out, the critical issue is the amount of smoke inhaled.

We must recognize that much more must be done in terms of ending the drug war. I just returned from Colombia where $500 worth of cocaine can bring as much as $100,000 on the streets of an American city. Colombian politicians tell us that if they are to be able to deal with the epidemic of the drug trade and the corruption it brings, we must take action here.

While Bill C-344 is an important step it does not go as far as it should in recognizing human, medical, criminal and health realities. I hope the bill will be referred to committee. I hope the committee will have an opportunity to bring the laws of Canada into conformity with justice and humanity.

Contraventions Act
Private Members' Business

11:45 a.m.

Liberal

John Maloney Erie—Lincoln, ON

Mr. Speaker, at first glance the goal of Bill C-344 to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of cannabis would seem a straightforward one.

As hon. members have been told, under Bill C-344 simple possession of cannabis would be dealt with under the Contraventions Act rather than the criminal justice system. The Contraventions Act provides an alternative to the summary conviction process prescribed by the criminal code. It simplifies the process for prosecuting offences against federal statutes and regulations that would otherwise be prosecuted under the criminal code.

Supporters of Bill C-344 believe removing the criminal penalty would ease the burden on Canada's criminal justice system. They maintain that any savings that result could be directed to prosecuting dealers and traffickers of illegal drugs.

Easing the burden on Canada's criminal justice system is an admirable goal. However it is important to note that Bill C-344 would necessitate the creation of a new administrative regime. We need look no further than at one of our closest friends, Australia, to see that such administrative regimes can produce unexpected and often unwelcome results.

Canada can learn from the Australian experience for a number of reasons. The types of drugs and their usage rates are much the same in both countries. We have similar legal and parliamentary systems. If we look closely at the Australian example it becomes clear that decriminalizing cannabis in Canada would not be as simple or straightforward as some have indicated.

Two Australian states, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory, have converted the simple possession of cannabis into a civil offence through what is called a cannabis expiation notice system. In both states the possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use is a non-criminal process. Offenders may be fined up to $150. If they fail to pay within 60 days they are required to go to court.

While there has been no evidence of any dramatic increase in cannabis use in the two states since they introduced the expiation system in the early 1990s, officials have encountered unanticipated results regarding enforcement practices. For example, despite the fact that cannabis use remained at relatively stable levels after the expiation system was introduced, the number of offences rose disproportionately. The increase came about largely because it had become procedurally easier for authorities to fine rather than arrest.

The focus of enforcement also became an issue. Males, often of lower socio-economic status or aboriginal origin, were being charged more frequently than others. The expiation system had widened the net and increased representation of marginalized groups. The trend was disturbing for a number of reasons. Most noticeable was that the majority of the males lacked the financial means to pay their fines within the 60 day period. Almost half those who received expiation notices failed to pay their fines within the required 60 days. As a result they found themselves before the courts anyway, in danger of acquiring the very criminal record decriminalization was designed to eliminate.

Both states have been forced to take action to address the situation. In Western Australia payment options have been introduced. Clearer and more detailed information is now available so people receiving expiation notices are fully aware of the process and its consequences.

I believe hon. members will agree that it is clear Canada will face similar risks unless we insist on an informed and prepared approach to the issues. Both Australian territories had relatively sophisticated mechanisms to help them identify potential problems in the expiation system. We lack similar data in Canada. We would need to develop means to disseminate information on any new system we might introduce. We would need to find a reasonable alternative to the use of fines. This alone should encourage us to proceed cautiously and allow the parliamentary committees examining the issue to complete their valuable work.

There is another area in which Bill C-344 may be insufficient. It would maintain the link between consumers of cannabis and suppliers of cannabis, suppliers such as organized crime. Australian legislators addressed this important issue by decriminalizing the personal cultivation of small numbers of plants.

Hundreds of thousands of Canadians may be making an informed decision to smoke cannabis. If we decriminalized cannabis would we provide a decriminalized supply as they do in Australia or would we continue to drive cannabis consumers into the arms of organized crime? Put another way, would we allow organized crime to continue to profit from trafficking in marijuana or would we make a serious attempt to diminish its profits?

There is also a more practical difficulty with Bill C-344. That is the fact that some provinces have not yet agreed on a memorandum of understanding with the federal government concerning the Contraventions Act. Furthermore, we need to know about our options regarding decriminalization and legalization. A wide range of responses is possible, including maintaining the current situation of criminalizing possession only, without jail. In this regard the findings of the parliamentary committees now examining these issues promise to be very helpful. Finally, we need more information, relevant information, in a number of areas: for example, information about the number and demographics of cannabis users in Canada. This kind of baseline data is essential in evaluating any new system or designing any effective prevention efforts.

Surely all these factors make it clear that Canada needs to acquire more information and be more prepared before we can seriously consider the decriminalization of cannabis.

Even as we go about gathering that information we should not lose sight of the fact that decriminalization is merely a tool, not an end in itself. For example, the health and social problems related to cannabis use will not go away by simply reducing the penalty for possession. The truth is that issues such as driving while impaired and poly-substance abuse such as cannabis and alcohol will remain with us. This was a concern of the justice committee during our review of the impaired driving legislation. Surely it is clear to all members that we must consider the implications of decriminalization and be fully prepared to address these implications before we move ahead with the decriminalization process.

As a consequence and in light of my comments, I would propose the following motion. I move:

That the motion be amended by deleting all the words above the word that and by substituting therefor the following:

That Bill C-344, An Act to amend the Contraventions Act and Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (marihuana), be not now read a second time, that the order for second reading be discharged, the bill withdrawn from the Order Paper and the subject matter be referred to the Special Committee on Non-medical Use of Drugs.

Contraventions Act
Private Members' Business

11:55 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

I am advised that the amendment will have to be taken into deliberation. The Chair will come back to you as soon as a ruling has been made.

Contraventions Act
Private Members' Business

11:55 a.m.

Canadian Alliance

Ken Epp Elk Island, AB

Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I would like to appeal to you in making your ruling on this motion. I think it is absolutely despicable that a member on the government side would seek to hijack a private member's bill irrespective of which side of the House it comes from. This is a private member's bill and I think it is absolutely unreal that he should even attempt that.

Contraventions Act
Private Members' Business

11:55 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

The hon. member for Elk Island is certainly entitled to his opinion. His Liberal colleague has tabled a motion on which the Chair will rule a little later.

Contraventions Act
Private Members' Business

11:55 a.m.

Canadian Alliance

Peter Goldring Edmonton Centre-East, AB

Mr. Speaker, it is important to lessen the lifelong stigma of a criminal code conviction for minor possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use, but I have difficulty with the method of achieving this goal and with the resulting penalties which appear to be too weak. The arguments for the insulation of our inquisitive youth from a potentially career wrecking criminal record are both laudable and reasonable, however, I remain concerned that there must be significant penal consequences for possession of larger quantities of a hazardous substance.

My first concern relates to the varying and increasing potencies of cannabis resins and marijuana plants generally. Potencies have been increased through cross-germination and plant genetics and are unrecognizable from those of the hippie sixties. The potencies may well be increased manyfold in the future. An illicit drug that is not easily quantifiable as to potency is a hazardous substance that requires control with a very firm hand.

Today, three kilograms of cannabis resin or three kilograms of marijuana have enough potency to impair the residents of a small town, let alone one person striving for a personal recreational high. A person with three kilograms, or seven pounds, of marijuana is not an individual with a personal supply but is instead a bulk grocery store of drugs to be sold to members of our community, including children.

It is important to acknowledge a general consensus that simple possession of a small quantity of marijuana, medicinally prescribed and for medicinal purposes, should be legalized. The current debate on criminalization concerns possession for purely recreational purposes. I am not unfamiliar with the subject matter, particularly as I was a young person in Toronto during the sixties. As I recall, the price at that time was generally $10 per ounce, or a dime bag. Today an ounce might cost $50. Three kilograms or seven pounds of marijuana at $50 per ounce would retail for $5,000. Three kilograms of marijuana is the equivalent of 100 $50 dime bags, enough to seriously intoxicate up to 500 people.

Under the recently debated legislation in the House of Commons, Bill C-344, which has not yet become law, possession of three kilograms of marijuana would warrant no more than a $200 fine to the dealer. Such a penalty would amount to little more than an incidental business cost, more comparable to a traffic ticket than a drug trafficking penalty. A fine for a second offence would be no more $500 and for a third offence no more than $1,000. Again, these are little more than nuisance highway traffic tickets.

Some even believe that no jail time should ever be imposed when sentencing marijuana users or dealers. Before agreeing to such weak sanctions, I believe we should approach matters with a consistent hand and speak to the experts on the front lines, our police officers, and solicit a national consensus. In my opinion, there must still be restrictions and serious punishments associated with all marijuana offences, particularly for those who traffic in this potent mind altering drug. Removing marijuana charges under the criminal code for possession or trafficking in large quantities of the drug is not conducive to law, justice and good civil order. While alcohol induced impairment is readily detected by roadside breath analysis, the more dangerous marijuana induced impairment is not.

Grant Obst, a Saskatoon police officer and president of the Canadian Police Association, recently acknowledged that police across Canada are focusing more on marijuana traffickers than on users. However, the Canadian Police Association opposes general decriminalization of marijuana regardless of enforcement issues that arise in allocating very limited police resources. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and the national Tory leader, the member for Calgary Centre, both call for looser pot laws. I say we should listen to the police who work on the front lines at street level. They say no.

Variability of potencies of marijuana is a matter of grave concern to the Canadian medical profession, which is now permitted to prescribe the drug for medicinal purposes. The Canadian Medical Protective Association, the primary liability insurer for doctors, is now warning doctors against prescribing marijuana. In the view of the association it is an unacceptable burden to require the doctors to prescribe marijuana unquantifiable as to potencies for medicinal purposes. While pharmaceuticals are subject to rigorous testing, quality control and regulation prior to being available under a doctor's prescription, there are absolutely no standards in place to address consistency in marijuana quality or potency.

In my view, our concern should be more to ensure that those who need marijuana for medicinal purposes are able to obtain a drug that is consistent in quality and potency, like any other approved pharmaceutical. We should not be devoting resources to decriminalizing marijuana generally.

Recently an Edmonton organization stepped forward to help those who need marijuana for medicinal purposes, but it appears to be more concerned with obtaining tax deductible charity status rather than with seeking help from elected officials such as myself who are willing to try to assist.

Last June I introduced a motion in the House of Commons. I am seeking agreement from my colleagues that the government should not legalize marijuana except for medicinally prescribed purposes. This motion has not yet come forward for debate.

The basic point remains. We cannot, as a responsible society, decriminalize a drug with known short term and long term narcotic effects, particularly when potencies and quality vary and the extent of social harm is therefore unpredictable.

Contraventions Act
Private Members' Business

12:05 p.m.

The Speaker

The amendment by the hon. member for Erie--Lincoln is in order.

It being 12:06, rather than have the hon. member start with something like 30 seconds left, we will draw private members' business to a conclusion and move on to government orders.

Contraventions Act
Private Members' Business

12:05 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Ken Epp Elk Island, AB

Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of order. My question is with respect to this private members' business. Are we now then to assume that you, Mr. Speaker, have accepted the amendment that was put by the member on the Liberal side to hijack this motion?

Contraventions Act
Private Members' Business

12:05 p.m.

The Speaker

Yes. The amendment is in order. That is why I proposed it to the House.

Of course the Chair makes no comment on whether the motion hijacks anything or not.