House of Commons Hansard #66 of the 40th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was young.

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The House resumed consideration of Bill C-15, An Act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and to make related and consequential amendments to other Acts, as reported (with amendment) from the committee, and of Motion No. 1.

Controlled Drugs and Substances Act
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3:10 p.m.

NDP

Megan Leslie Halifax, NS

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to Bill C-15, An Act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and to make related and consequential amendments to other Acts.

This bill would amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to provide for minimum penalties for serious drug offences, to increase the maximum penalty for cannabis or marijuana production, to reschedule certain substances from schedule 3 of that act to schedule 1, and to make consequential amendments to other acts.

I spoke to this bill at second reading and I spoke against it. I spoke against it because generally I do not believe that mandatory minimums are an effective legislative policy and I certainly cannot support mandatory minimums in the context of drug laws.

Why is that? We have had many studies and reports that show that mandatory minimums have a negligible impact on crime control. For example, I will quote from one of the reports from our own Department of Justice in 2002. It states:

Harsh mandatory minimum sentences do not appear to influence drug consumption or drug-related crime in any measurable way.

Another report in 2005 from our own Department of Justice stated:

There is some indication that minimum sentences are not an effective sentencing tool....

When this bill was at committee, the John Howard Society provided summaries from 17 studies from the U.S. and the U.K. on mandatory minimums, lengthy sentence terms and recidivism. They found that the longer prison terms do not reduce recidivism. The detailed analysis of the United States Sentencing Commission found that mandatory minimums went after the low-level criminals and that they were ineffective at deterring crime.

In 1987, the Canadian Sentencing Commission noted that since 1952, all Canadian commissions that addressed the role of mandatory minimum penalties have recommended that they be abolished. Here we are in 2009 and we are advocating for mandatory minimums.

The Canadian Sentencing Commission also found that existing mandatory minimum penalties, with the exception of those for murder and high treason, serve no purpose that can compensate for the disadvantages resulting from their continued existence but we still have politicians promoting mandatory minimums as an effective means of fighting crime.

Let us unpack what politicians are doing. We are saying that we will punish people for committing a crime and punish them harshly, but punishment comes after the fact. I will quote the author, Michael Tonry, in an article he wrote entitled “Mandatory Penalties”, where he gives the reason that legislatures and politicians continue to enact mandatory minimums. He says that “most elected officials who support such laws are only secondarily interested in their effects. Officials' primary interests are rhetorical and symbolic. Calling and voting for mandatory penalties is demonstrating that officials are tough on crime. If the laws works, all the better, but that's hardly crucial. In a time of heightened public anxiety about crime and social unrest, being on the right side of the crime issue is much more important politically than making sound and sensible public policy choices”.

There we have it. It seems that the emperor has no clothes. I want to repeat: “Public anxiety about crime and social unrest...is much more important politically than making sound and sensible public policy choices”. That is what we have here today.

I stood up against this bill at second reading but it did pass and it went to committee. At committee, we heard from many knowledgeable expert witnesses. We heard from front line workers, legal scholars and policy experts. Sixteen witnesses appeared and, of the 16, 13 provided evidence and studies showing that mandatory minimums are costly failures that target low-level dealers. This is the issue, because the government is trying to tell us that this bill will stop drug trafficking. We are trying to get the kingpins but the evidence shows that it targets low-level dealers, users and a disproportionate number of visible minorities and poor people. As I stated earlier, our own justice department has two reports clearly stating that mandatory minimums are not effective for drug crimes.

When the minister was asked if he could produce a report showing that mandatory minimums work, he could not, but he did insist that this was what Canadians wanted.

Three of the 16 witnesses did support mandatory minimums. What did they say? Not one of the three could produce evidence showing that mandatory minimums actually work to reduce drug use, drug crimes, organized crime or gang violence. We have nothing except three witnesses who say that they support this. We have no evidence.

My colleagues have spoken to the known results of mandatory minimum sentences: increased pressure on the criminal justice system; and substantial increased costs to the provincial prison and court systems. The bill would capture the low-level dealers, not the kingpins, as it is intended. It also would not address the real issue of addiction that we know is best combated by a four pillar approach: enforcement, treatment, harm reduction and prevention, with each one being equal.

I would like to touch on an issue that is not raised in this hon. House often enough, and that is the issue of race and class. Representatives from the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, also known as VANDU, testified that drug prohibition serves to further marginalize people because in Canada police profiling centres on poor visible street users and sellers. Canadian jails and prisons house the poor, and our most visible drug users and sellers are aboriginal people and people of colour. They are vastly overrepresented.

VANDU looked to the U.S. where it did implement mandatory minimums in the 1970s and 1980s. In states that legislated these mandatory minimums, by the 1980s it became apparent that poor people and people of colour were most vulnerable to police profiling and imprisonment for drug offences even though drug use rates were no higher than in other sub-groups.

Deborah Small, the executive director of Break the Chains, an organization based out of the U.S., also testified at committee. She said:

I think it's important to note that while all studies show that drug use is pretty much endemic across every population and socio-economic group, the history in the U.S. has been that drug law enforcement has disproportionately impacted poor people.

She went on to say something that is quite damning. She said:

I think it's important to note that one of the effects in New York of enacting the Rockefeller laws is that it forced the state to reallocate money in ways that were really very detrimental. We saw a dollar-for-dollar trade-off in increased expenditures for prisons versus higher education. That sent a message to young people, particularly young people of colour, that the state would actually prefer to invest in their incarceration rather than their education.

How can we stand here and support a bill that we know will not work? We cannot. Therefore, how could we possibly propose an amendment to a bill? We could just throw up our hands and refuse to participate but I do not believe Canadians want that from any of us here. I believe they want us to engage on issues, despite our party lines and our personal ideologies. They send us here to work and sometimes we are working on issues on which we cannot agree.

As parliamentarians, I believe we have an obligation to try to make bills better, even if we strongly disagree with the fundamental premise of the bill.

I would like to point out that we asked many of the witnesses if they would amend the bill if they could and an overwhelmingly majority said that we should scrap it and start over. They actually said “scrap it”.

However, despite that clear message, the NDP has proposed an amendment to strike clause 3 of the bill because it is our duty to try to make this bill better. Perhaps we do give up some of our principles by engaging on the amendments but it is the responsible thing to do.

Clause 3 would create quite a few of the mandatory minimums for various schedule one and schedule two drugs, and striking out the clause would result in striking some of the mandatory minimums that we feel would capture the wrong people: people who are poor, aboriginal Canadians, people from racialized communities and compassion clubs.

I would like to thank my colleague from Vancouver East for moving this amendment and doing her best to try to make a bad bill better.

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3:20 p.m.

Conservative

Brent Rathgeber Edmonton—St. Albert, AB

Mr. Speaker, I thank the hon. member for Halifax for her eloquent and very well researched speech in opposition to Bill C-15 and in support of the amendment, which would essentially gut Bill C-15.

I noted with interest that the member quoted the VANDU, a group of drug users from Vancouver in support of her position that minimum mandatory sentences do not work. I am curious to know whether the member supports VANDU's well pronounced policy statement against prohibition of all narcotics, including what most people consider serious narcotics like cocaine and methamphetamine.

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3:20 p.m.

NDP

Megan Leslie Halifax, NS

Mr. Speaker, I support the work that VANDU does generally. It is a group of experts that is made up mostly of people who have addictions, who have overcome their addictions and who know first-hand what addictions can do to their lives and the lives of their friends. We need to look to them as experts on this issue and we need to take them and their recommendations very seriously. They did not appear at this committee to talk specifically about holus-bolus decriminalization. They came for a very specific reason, and that is the testimony I heard and that I had in front of me. I think they are right. I think they hit the nail on the head when it came to Bill C-15.

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3:20 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, I thank the member for enlightening the House on a few important details.

My understanding is that where there is an indictable offence, as prescribed under Bill C-15, there is a proviso where the person is liable to imprisonment up to life. Then it goes on to say, “or subject to a mandatory minimum of one year”.

I do not know whether the committee, and maybe the member could help, heard from legal officials as to the process that has to be gone through to seek the mandatory minimums to be imposed. My understanding is that the crown attorney would need to make application and that it is usually the practice for them not to make application for mandatory minimums simply because these are the small potatoes and they are really after the serious criminals who are behind the drug offences.

Is the member aware of that and does she know that even existing mandatory minimums often are not even exercised by the crown attorney?

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3:20 p.m.

NDP

Megan Leslie Halifax, NS

Mr. Speaker, I must admit that I am not sure what the member for Mississauga South is referring to. It is a mandatory minimum. It is mandatory that this must be the minimum sentence.

We did have testimony before us that a lot of plea bargaining might happen if there were a mandatory minimum for one offence. Some of the legal experts testified that crown and defence attorneys would try to negotiate a different crime that did not have a mandatory minimum. We would have some very strange plea bargaining where folks would not necessarily be ultimately charged with the crime they committed.

We would also have some judges who would find that in some situations, because the mandatory minimum in that circumstance was unfair to the accused person because of certain circumstances, they may be unwilling to convict because they would not want to give an unjust sentence based on the circumstances they were presented with.

However, I would need to look that up because I do not know the answer to that question. I do not think so.

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3:25 p.m.

Liberal

Derek Lee Scarborough—Rouge River, ON

Mr. Speaker, in the bill proposed section 8 states quite clearly that the mandatory minimums provided for are not obtainable and do not apply unless the crown attorney gives notice before the accused enters a plea that the Attorney General will prove the factors related to a mandatory minimum sentence.

This whole thing is a charade, a pretense that there is a mandatory minimum sentence when there is not a crown attorney out there, ever, who is going to waste time giving notice and proving the factors related to this type of offence. If it is a big fish, will the member not agree that the existing sentence for this crime is already a life sentence?

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3:25 p.m.

NDP

Megan Leslie Halifax, NS

Mr. Speaker, I certainly would agree that the maximum is already a life sentence. There are situations where a judge may find that a life sentence is what is needed, but there are also situations where that is not needed.

If we look at that section, we are taking away judicial discretion. The key here is judicial discretion. It is not up to crown attorneys to be the judge and to decide what the sentence is going to be. It is about judicial discretion. It is about the judge taking into consideration all the facts, having heard all the evidence, and making a decision that best fits that situation.

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3:25 p.m.

NDP

Dennis Bevington Western Arctic, NT

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise to debate this bill.

By and large, the direction the government has chosen to take with the bill is completely at odds with our party's policies. We do not support mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences. The amendment we are talking about today would eliminate those from the bill.

The bill in front of us, which is taking up the time of Parliament in the discussion of drug policy, is really indicative of the government. We see the government put forward legislation, not to deal with the problem of a drug policy but simply to put a sugar coating on its anti-crime agenda, to mollify its constituents who somehow might believe the Conservatives are doing something useful for Canadian society with this bill.

That is the problem we face today. We, in this Parliament, are not dealing with the real issues that are in front of us in this country. When we put forward legislation like this, we are simply putting forward a public relations effort to convince Canadians prior to the next time we go to the polls that the government is actually engaged in serious work for Canadians on the justice side.

Drug use in Canada remains at a level that it has been for many years. In many cases, it represents the appetite of Canadians, the direction that Canadians take with their lives.

I live in a northern region, where the problems we have with substance abuse primarily come from alcohol. We have worked with those issues for centuries. Sometimes we seem to get closer to the solutions. The solutions do not come with enforcement. The solutions to the alcohol issues in the Northwest Territories, in northern Canada and across the country do not come from putting people in jail.

The misuse of a substance, which most Canadians enjoy, they do not mind taking a drink occasionally, they find it useful, perhaps even a little helpful to them in many cases, is the prime cause of misery, broken families, property damage and so on.

We do not try to deal with the problems of alcohol abuse by simply putting people in jail. We know that is not a solution. We know we need to come up with better solutions. We know the solutions that are going to work are based on understanding, education, working with people to ensure they have a decent income and the opportunities that come with life.

This is a bill that speaks to trafficking, I agree. This is a bill about those who traffic in the drugs, the drugs that Canadians buy and Canadians use.

Therefore, if the bill were passed in the state it is in now, it would likely increase the value of drugs on the street, make it more profitable for some to purvey the drugs, but would it actually come to grips with drug issues in our communities? No, I think it would actually go the other way. It would increase the problems we have because we have not taken positive steps toward solving these problems.

We have chosen to go in the wrong direction, and that is really unfortunate. That takes up our time. That sets this country on a course that in a number of years will have to change; we will have to go back in the other direction. We put forward an amendment to try to change the bill even somewhat, to try to make Parliament understand that this is the wrong direction.

We are interested in working in the right direction on drug policy in this country. What is the right direction? For 80% of the value of illegal drugs sold in this country, being cannabis, we will likely want to move to a decriminalization mode. That is our party's position, and it has been for many years. Why have we taken that position? Our position has been backed up by every study and every independent commission dealing with the subject in Canada. We came to realize that some drugs might actually be used by people for their own personal health reasons.

Years ago the government put forward a medical marijuana ordinance, which is not working very well. The statistics are quite interesting. Of the 400,000 people in this country who likely use marijuana for health reasons, about 3,000 are licensed under the government program. There is less than 1% under the program. It has been a complete failure.

The other 99% of those people who might use marijuana for medical purposes are on the streets buying it from dealers who are going to be impacted by this legislation. They will raise the price and make it more criminal. Those people will be in an even worse situation than they are today.

Interestingly, when we look at the drug strategy and controlled substance program and the medical marijuana cost breakdown, for those 3,000 licensed users, $5.2 million was spent in 2006-07 supplying them with medical marijuana. That is outrageous. It shows the incredible ineptitude of this Parliament and this government, and the previous government, in actually coming to grips with the issue of drug policy and drug use in this country.

We are today battling over whether we should put the traffickers in jail for longer periods of time, yet we cannot face the reality of what Canadians do for medical reasons, for recreational reasons or for addictive reasons. We cannot come to grips with that. That is an incredible failure on the part of the government and on the part of our society in this day and age.

I do not know how much longer I have to speak on this subject. I do not know how much longer I want to lecture the government on its failures and the failures of the House of Commons.

Could we please move forward in a sensible and rational fashion on drug policy? Could the government please put the ideology aside, recognize what is important for Canadians, read the statistics, listen to what the experts are saying and then come back with something that resembles a useful tool for Canadians for the future?

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3:35 p.m.

NDP

Jean Crowder Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Mr. Speaker, the member touched on this, and I would like him to expand on it. There are remote communities in the member's area, and I suspect they are like Vancouver Island and my own riding of Nanaimo—Cowichan, where it is often very difficult to have a balanced approach.

In talking about drugs, the Conservative government looks at one aspect and fails to look at things like prevention. That entails education awareness and certainly treatment.

Many young people in my own riding have a lot of difficulty in accessing treatment when they are ready to take treatment. I wonder if the member could comment on what he sees as being important in terms of a more balanced approach when we are talking about drugs in this country.

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3:35 p.m.

NDP

Dennis Bevington Western Arctic, NT

Mr. Speaker, because of the sense of illegality around drug use, because of the kinds of relationships that people get into when they are drug users, because these are illegal substances they are forced into the criminal market, because of all those things, young people take on the air of those around them.

In one respect the government is right. There is a gateway into drugs. That gateway is the criminalization of drugs. That is what in so many cases is driving the development of many of the drugs that are used in this country. The statistics prove it.

We need to come back to basics. We need to understand what has to happen in this country. Without that understanding, with this continued ideological presentation of issues on this subject, Canadians are going to suffer, young people are going to suffer, the young people the member is talking about in the future. We are simply doing them an incredible disservice.

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3:35 p.m.

Blackstrap
Saskatchewan

Conservative

Lynne Yelich Minister of State (Western Economic Diversification)

Mr. Speaker, I listened to the member and he thinks that marijuana is not a drug that should be criminalized, that it should be decriminalized. I wonder what he thinks of the RCMP operational intelligence, in that the superintendent from the Surrey detachment said, “What can't be debated is that cannabis is a currency for organized crime”. When I did a tour of my riding when we were talking about the dangers of marijuana, there was a concern in the school districts that the drug dealers would definitely lace marijuana with drugs that would be dangerous to young people. I wonder if the member has thought past the serious drug crimes that this legislation is trying to address. He seems to not realize that we are talking about serious crimes, not about anything less than production, trafficking, possession for the purpose of trafficking, importing, exporting, possession for the purpose of exporting. Would he not think that it is important to protect his constituents from those serious offences?

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3:40 p.m.

NDP

Dennis Bevington Western Arctic, NT

Mr. Speaker, the minister actually makes the point that I was trying to make. Criminalization of drugs that are used by such a large percentage of the population, some for medical purposes, some for recreational purposes, is driving the criminal industry in this country. Eighty per cent of the revenues of organized crime for drugs comes from marijuana. That is a terrible statistic. That is the oxygen that drives the criminal industry in her province, in my territory. We need to take that away. Decriminalization is the first step in doing that.

I personally believe that we will not get a reduction in crime until we legalize marijuana. We can look at the other drugs. I am not sure about those. I am willing to call it on that.

However, when the minister speaks as she does, she is making my case.

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3:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Deputy Speaker Andrew Scheer

Is the House ready for the question?

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3:40 p.m.

Some hon. members

Question.