Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak in support of Bill C-45, legislation that would legalize, regulate, and restrict access to cannabis. The objective of our government's bill is to protect our youth, to deter criminal activity, and to promote public health and safety.
Let me turn first to the issue of Canada's youth. Canadian youth use cannabis more than youth anywhere else in the entire world. In 2015, use among youth aged 15 to 19 was 21%. In many cases, accessing cannabis in our country is easier than getting a cigarette or buying a bottle of beer, so clearly, the current system is not working.
Confronted with this reality, our government has two options: continue the zero tolerance policies that have been proven to fail, or adopt a policy of harm reduction. We have chosen the latter. We have chosen to recognize that people, including young people, are using cannabis, and the best way to address the situation is by accepting this fact, and taking positive, proactive steps to educate youth about the dangers of cannabis use, while simultaneously penalizing those who would seek to encourage cannabis use among youth.
For example, we know that cannabis has the potential to cause short and long-term mental health and physical health effects, and that it poses greater overall health risks in developing brains. It is because of this, our government would provide funding toward public awareness campaigns, which would inform our youth about the risks of cannabis.
We also propose to get tough on those who target youth. Similar to the restrictions on the promotion of tobacco products, under Bill C-45, there would be comprehensive restrictions applied to advertising and promoting cannabis, and its related products by any means, including sponsorships and branding that can be deemed to be appealing to children. There would be prohibitions on self-service displays or vending machines. False, misleading, deceptive testimonies, or endorsements that could entice young people to use cannabis would also be prohibited. A violation of these prohibitions would mean a fine of up to $5 million, or up to three years in jail.
We are also aggressively penalizing those who would target youth for cannabis sales. Our government has introduced two new criminal offences, and an up to 14-year prison sentence for those who would give or sell cannabis to our youth, or use a youth to distribute cannabis.
I want to turn to my second point in relation to the criminal justice system. Our government also accepts another clear reality, that the current policies of zero tolerance have failed to deter criminal activity. In fact, to the contrary, zero tolerance has actually permitted the illicit market to flourish, padding the pockets of organized crime and street gangs.
In Canada alone, the illegal trade of marijuana reaps an estimated $7 billion in profits annually for organized crime. Again, as a government, we have a choice, to continue failed policies, or to choose the route of legalization and regulation, a route that would take money out of the hands of criminals, and thereby keep Canadians safer.
At present, Canada is an exporter of cannabis for global markets, and organized criminal groups have reaped large profits from the cannabis cultivation and trafficking. These are individuals who operate complex organized criminal enterprises, who engage in violence, and pose a constant threat to the public safety and well-being of all Canadians. By taking money out of the hands of such groups, we would be deterring crime in this country.
The approach of Bill C-45 has another important impact on criminal justice in Canada; that is, reducing backlogs. This is a situation with which I am very familiar, as an individual who spent 15 years as a lawyer in practice prior to being elected, the majority of that time being with the ministry of the attorney general of Ontario. As crown counsel, I saw repeatedly the limited resources available to prosecutors, police, and the judiciary to administer criminal justice, which was exacerbated by the number of charges clogging up the system.
In 2015, cannabis simple possession offences accounted for more than half of all police reported drug charges, some 49,577 charges out of a total of 96,423 charges being laid. By removing charges for simple possession of small amounts of cannabis, the bill would permit limited court and crown resources to be applied directly to more serious drug related crimes, and to more serious criminals, the actual persons who pose a direct threat to the safety and well-being of Canadians. It would allow law enforcement officials to concentrate their efforts on significant criminal activity, thereby improving their ability to keep Canadian communities safe.
We have addressed how public safety would be strengthened through the new regime ushered in under Bill C-45, so now allow me to turn to my third point.
Bill C-45 would promote public health. Public health professionals are among the various groups and individuals who were consulted in the development of this legislation.
First, the task force on cannabis legalization and regulation heard from professionals, advocates, front-line workers, decision-makers and public servants, as well as expert panels, patients, citizens, and informed employers. They were all driven to develop a sound cannabis strategy in the interest of all Canadians.
The task force held a series of round table discussions across the country in order to consult experts from a wide range of disciplines as well as researchers and academics, patients and their advocates, cannabis users, police chiefs and fire chiefs, other municipal and local representatives, and various industry associations and health care professionals.
The Liberal Party promised Canadians in the 2015 election that we would make policy decisions based on science, facts, and evidence. Bill C-45 does just that by incorporating the recommendations of this important task force. Among the recommendations, recognizing that cannabis use is occurring in my riding of Parkdale—High Park and around the country, was permitting adults to make informed choices about using small amounts of cannabis recreationally, without fear of criminal sanction.
The task force also highlighted, as a guiding principle, the notion that the law should demonstrate compassion for vulnerable members of society and patients in need of medical cannabis. However, it recognized that from a health perspective, one of the biggest dangers remaining for cannabis users is not knowing the content or the quality of the cannabis being taken. It is precisely this unknown, driven by the presence of the illegal market, that makes cannabis use so dangerous currently.
Bill C-45 would address this public health risk head on. It would protect and promote public health by strictly regulating cannabis production, distribution, and sales. Rules would be implemented for adults to access quality-controlled cannabis, while a new tightly regulated supply chain was created, ensuring product safety for Canadians so that Canadians who chose to use cannabis were able to do so knowing that they were not endangering themselves. This would, once again, be putting harm reduction, as an operating principle, to work.
This global shift toward harm reduction for cannabis use has led to legalization in Uruguay, along with several European and Latin American countries that have decriminalized the personal possession of cannabis, followed by some American states, representing more than 20% of the total U.S. population, which have voted to legalize and regulate cannabis for non-medical purposes.
Important lessons would undoubtedly arise from Canada's experience in the coming years, ones that would be valuable for advancing the global dialogue on innovative strategies for drug control. I am confident that Canada would remain a committed international partner by monitoring and evaluating our evolving cannabis policy and sharing these important lessons with national and international stakeholders.
Overall, I am very confident that the framework proposed in Bill C-45 is the best approach going forward for Canadians. It recognizes the failure of zero tolerance and the merits of pursuing harm reduction as the guiding principle to inform public policy. It is a balanced approach designed to protect Canadians, especially our youth, by providing regulated access to legal cannabis for adults while restricting access by youth.
It would put in place strict safeguards to protect youth from being encouraged to use cannabis and would create new offences for those adults who either provide cannabis to youth or use youth to commit cannabis-related offences. It would also help focus limited police and crown resources where they are most needed: in prosecuting serious drug criminals who make our communities less safe.
Bill C-45 would promote public health through increased education and awareness and by ensuring a safe supply of cannabis for those who chose to use small amounts recreationally.
I would encourage all members to support Bill C-45. We must all act now to make our communities safer by legalizing, restricting, and strictly regulating cannabis to keep it out of the hands of Canadian youth and to keep the profits out of the hands of organized criminals.