Madam Speaker, whenever the occasion permits I try in my remarks to the House to develop arguments that form part of a larger, more coherent whole than is permitted by the 10 minute speaking slots that are assigned to us under the Standing Orders.
A larger, more complete picture on an issue under debate in the House can be developed by means of public addresses, published papers, opeds or other media. In this way I try to ensure that my contributions to the debates that take place in the Chamber will become part of what I hope will develop over time into an ever more complete, thoughtful and well reasoned organic whole on whatever subject is under discussion.
Ideally, the longer term result of this approach would be that as time progresses these disparate commentaries could together be taken as part of a coherent and tolerably exhaustive review of the background to a subject as it percolates its way through the realm of public debate. By the time it is ready to be dealt with legislatively I will have completed a thorough review of the subject accompanied where possible by something that amounts to a kind of policy manifesto.
In my remarks today I will be expanding upon a thesis with regard to the subject of banned and illegal substances that I had partly addressed in an essay entitled “Should we end prohibition?” in the October 2001 edition of the journal Policy Options. Today's remarks are given some context by these earlier thoughts. If hon. members find what I say to be of interest I encourage them to seek further information along the same lines by looking at that essay.
Today's debate centres on Bill C-344, an act to amend the Contraventions Act and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (marijuana). Under the bill it would no longer be a criminal offence to possess marijuana for personal use. However, the possession of marijuana would remain a non-criminal offence and persons found to be in possession of the substance would face fines of $200 for a first offence, $500 for a second offence and $1,000 for any subsequent offences.
Currently, the penalties laid out under subsection 462.2(a) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act for a first conviction can include fines as high as $100,000 or six months in prison. The penalties for reoffending range as high as $300,000 and one year's imprisonment.
The present standard for determining whether marijuana is intended for personal use would remain in place under the proposed law. If any person were found to be in possession of amounts in excess of three kilograms this would be regarded as prima facie evidence of an intent to sell some since it is highly unlikely that one person could possibly consume such a large quantity on his or her own.
My inclination is to support the proposed law for reasons that I will explain in a moment. However, if the law makes it through the legislative process and is presented to the House for third reading I will attempt to hold a survey of my constituents as to how to vote and I will respect their wishes even if these wishes do not correspond with my own preferences.
With this caveat in place I would like to state my personal views. I favour the legislation for two reasons, the second of which I will spend more time on than the first.
First, it would greatly reduce the amount of Canada's limited police and law enforcement assets that are being consumed by the enforcement of the current Criminal Code provisions relating to marijuana possession. About $200 million is spent each year in this country on enforcing laws against the simple possession for personal use of all illegal drugs. Of this, $150 million goes to the enforcement of the criminal sanctions against the use of marijuana. This proposed law would therefore save our police departments $150 million each year which could be used instead to deal with the many other urgent issues that face our law enforcement officials.
Second, it would pave the way for marijuana to be used under careful monitoring for medical purposes. The most important of these purposes would be for use as a pain relieving agent. It is to this subject that I wish to focus the remaining portion of my remarks.
Marijuana, whether smoked or ingested in another manner, can provide relief from chronic pain and in some cases from debilitating pain when no other remedy is available. It is for this reason that several American states, including California and Arizona, have legalized the use of marijuana for pain relief.
Those of us who do not suffer chronic pain in our everyday lives have little idea just how devastating it can be. In many cases severe, untreated pain can be so overwhelming that individuals who are not able to find relief, find that the pain outweighs all of life's joys. In extreme cases life ceases to be worth living.
I will give one example among the many from which I could choose. A retired New York state police officer named David Covillion suffered chronic back pain as the result of a traffic accident. He was deprived pain medication in the form of a prescription drug that combines acetaminophen and the narcotic oxycodone after his long term use of the drug raised red flags with medical authorities. When this occurred Mr. Covillion tried to go from one doctor to another seeking narcotic prescriptions. Mr. Covillion described his pain in the following words:
As I ran out of medication, I was confined to my bed totally, because it hurt to move...At times I'd have liked to just take an axe and chop my arm right off, but I would have had to take half my neck with it.
When he had been completely cut off from prescription narcotics Mr. Covillion approached Jack Kevorkian, the famous suicide doctor, to ask how to end his life. Dr. Kevorkian refused to assist Mr. Covillion end his life. He then turned to a group called the National Chronic Pain Outreach Association which for a few months was able to re-establish his access to the pain relievers he needed. During this period his quality of life improved and Mr. Covillion's story came to public light. He conducted a number of interviews including the one from which I have just quoted. However he was cut off again from medical supplies, his pain became too intense to bear, and on September 11, 1996 he killed himself.
In a general sense Mr. Covillion's story draws our attention to the need for more generous rules for the distribution of prescription pain relief. In his case the medication in question was not marijuana. It was a story like this one that caused voters in some parts of the United States to reconsider their harsh rules with regard to all forms of pain relief, including marijuana.
In California, in 1996, the voters chose by means of a binding referendum to change their state's laws to allow the use of marijuana as a means of relieving chronic pain. This change to California's law and the United States federal government's subsequent decision to ignore state law and to continue to prosecute the users of medical marijuana allows us to engage in an interesting experiment in finding out what happens when marijuana is available for the relief of chronic pain and what happens when it is taken away.
I would like to illustrate this story by referring to a specific example. I am referring to a man named Peter McWilliams, the editor of Liberty magazine of which I am also an editor. In 1996 he fell ill with AIDS and with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Like many people who are afflicted with these illnesses his medication caused him to have severe nausea.
In 1996 it became legal to use marijuana for pain relief and Peter McWilliams began to use it. This allowed him to temporarily conquer his nausea and as a result he was able to keep his symptoms under control. However federal authorities cracked down and seized his marijuana from him. In order for him to be freed from jail where he would not have had access to his medication and to necessary lifesaving treatments he was required to put up as bond his brother's and mother's house. He also had to submit to regular urine testing to confirm that he was not using drugs. As a result his viral load began to soar. He said:
Unable to keep down the life-saving prescription medications, by November 1998, four months after my arrest, my viral load soared to more than 256,000. In 1996 when my viral load was only 12,500, I had already developed an AIDS-related cancer...Even so, the government would not yield. It continued to urine test me. If marijuana were found in my system, my mother and brother would lose their homes and I would be returned to prison.
He stopped using marijuana, and tried to carry on with his medication and the nausea he suffered without the aid of the pain relief drug. On June 14, 1999, his home care nurse arrived at his home to find him dead, having choked on his own vomit.
I suggest that the availability of marijuana for medical use and for pain relief could prevent this sort of tragedy. For this reason the legislation is an excellent measure which the House should consider.