Mr. Speaker, when the Liberals promised Canadians cannabis legalization last election, I think that reasonable Canadians understood legalization to mean the end of criminalization, the end of stigmatization, and the end of the prohibitionist approach to cannabis. It is why I, along with millions of other Canadians, was somewhat surprised to read the fine print of Bill C-45 only to discover that it is not legalization at all, but would just make cannabis less illegal. The proposed legislation would create a litany of new cannabis-related criminal offences, most of which carry a maximum sentence of up to 14 years in prison. As renowned criminal defence attorney Michael Spratt put it:
[Bill C-45] is an unnecessarily complex piece of legislation that leaves intact the criminalization of marijuana in many circumstances.
An adult who possesses more than 30 grams of marijuana in public is a criminal. A youth who possesses more than five grams of marijuana is a criminal. An 18-year-old who passes a joint to his 17-year-old friend is a criminal. An adult who grows five marijuana plants...is a criminal...This continued criminalization is inconsistent with a rational and evidence-based criminal justice policy and will only serve to reduce...the positive effects of [the bill].
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health has claimed that these harsh penalties are reserved for some “gangster in a stairwell” selling cannabis to children, but this is exactly the sort of reefer madness rhetoric that has fuelled prohibition for nearly a century. The evidence before the health committee was directly contrary to this view. In fact, 95% of cannabis producers and consumers in this country are non-violent, law-abiding citizens who have nothing to do with organized crime whatsoever.
If criminalization and the threat of imprisonment prevented people from using cannabis, then Canadians would not be consuming an estimated 655 metric tons of it every year when we have full criminalization and life sentences for trafficking. Indeed, the prohibitionist approach has been repeatedly discredited by its failures throughout history. Cannabis consumption has increased steadily throughout the so-called “war on drugs”, and Canadian youth consume cannabis at some of the highest rates in the world today. Of the 4.6 million people the parliamentary budget officer projects will use cannabis at least once in 2018, nearly 1.7 million, or more than one-third, would be in the 15 to 24 age group.
For far too long, we have wasted billions of dollars in resources in the criminal justice system by criminalizing otherwise law-abiding citizens at an alarming rate for simply processing and consuming cannabis. In fact, we still are. According to Statistics Canada, in 2016, under the Liberal government after it promised Canadians legalization, the most recent year of available data, there were 55,000 offences related to cannabis reported to police, and police charged 17,733 people with pot possession. Given that cannabis possession will soon be made legal in Canada, the NDP has been clear from the outset that we should immediately decriminalize the possession of recreational cannabis for personal use pending full legalization.
Now, petty possession is a crime that the Prime Minister himself has admitted to committing while serving as an elected official. This admission of past cannabis use belies his repeated assertion that “Until we've changed the law, the current laws exist and apply.” I guess he meant that they apply to other people and not to him.
It is a shame and hypocrisy of the highest order that the current government continues to prosecute and convict Canadians for simple cannabis possession, which is something the government admits should be legal. The government knows full well that current cannabis laws are not applied consistently across this country. Indeed, their discriminatory impact has been well documented by Canadian researchers, like Simon Fraser University's Dr. Neil Boyd.
Furthermore, given the extensive body of research on the negative impacts of carrying a criminal record, it is clear that pursuing thousands of convictions for actions that we no longer view as criminal will needlessly harm vulnerable Canadians, particularly young people, racialized communities, indigenous people, and other marginalized groups, mainly the poor.
I want to be clear that because I support genuine cannabis legalization, I acknowledge that Bill C-45 is an improvement on the status quo. That is why Canada's New Democrats will support this legislation. This bill allows for the legal possession of up to 30 grams of cannabis, permits the legal cultivation of up to four cannabis plants per dwelling or house, and creates a framework for the development of a legal recreational cannabis industry in Canada.
I must note, however, that Bill C-45, inexplicably, allows the provinces and territories to derogate from these basic freedoms. This should be a major concern to anyone who wants genuine cannabis legalization in Canada, and those who are urging this House to rush this legislation through.
I also want the record to show that after we revealed gaping holes in the Liberal government's cannabis legislation, the NDP worked in the best spirit of Jack Layton to reach across the aisle to give Canadians what they actually voted for, genuine cannabis legalization.
For anyone who doubts the positive role an effective opposition can play, I will point out that we were able to convince the Liberals to do the following: drop the ridiculous 100 centimetre plant height limit belied by all evidence and the experts; bring in edibles and concentrates, albeit not immediately, but within a year; and recognize the necessity of craft cannabis growers being brought into the legalized production framework.
Mark my words, these improvements would not have happened had the New Democrats not worked diligently at committee to bring forth the witnesses and evidence, and push the government to do the right thing. I will give the government credit because, unlike the previous Conservative government, which hardly ever took any suggestions from this side of the House, the Liberal government has proven able to listen to the evidence and make adjustments, albeit not as far as we would like.
In addition, at the health committee, we put forward 38 practical amendments to fully align Bill C-45 with its purposes section and the evidence we heard from expert testimony. The purposes include bringing the illicit industry into the light; making sure that Canadians have access to safe, well-regulated cannabis products; and taking the production and distribution of cannabis out of the hands of organized crime and bringing it into the regulated legal industry.
That is what the New Democrats paid attention to when we moved our amendments to make sure that this legislation aligned with those purposes. Unfortunately, the Liberal government has refused to do that in all cases, edibles being the most notable example. The government is content to leave edibles and concentrates in the hands of the black market, in the hands of organized crime, totally unregulated for up to another year and a half to two years from now. It cannot explain why.
Our proposed changes, besides legalizing the sale of edibles and concentrates, included providing pardons to Canadians saddled with a criminal record for offences that will no longer be offences under Bill C-45. This amendment was ruled outside the scope of Bill C-45. However, given the Prime Minister's previous statements, it is rather shocking that the Liberal government would structure a cannabis legalization bill in such a way that pardons cannot be included via an amendment, with these ruled outside the scope of the bill. When the Liberals say they have taken their time and consulted widely, maybe they could explain to Canadians how, after two years, they somehow forgot to deal with the issue of pardons for the criminal convictions that Canadians carry for cannabis possession when they Liberals know how devastating the effects are of those criminal convictions on people's economic and social lives.
We also proposed amendments to empower provincial governments to create parallel production licensing regimes to give them the flexibility to implement legalization in the manner best suited to their jurisdiction. For example, this amendment would have allowed provinces to let craft growers, small-scale producers, outdoors growers, and artisanal growers compete against large federally licensed corporate entities. That was voted down by the Liberals.
We proposed decriminalizing the penalties section in line with the Tobacco Act, proposing instead that the legalization take a regulatory approach, with significant fines for offences, rather than criminal ones. One of the purposes of Bill C-45, as laid out in section 7, is to “reduce the burden on the criminal justice system in relation to cannabis”. Penalties in the bill, in the NDP's view, should be consistent with that stated intent.
With the Liberal government's rejection of these amendments, I am very concerned that Bill C-45 will continue to harm many Canadians after it becomes law in this country. Unconscionable prison sentences, arbitrary possession limits, and barriers to small craft and artisanal producers are just a few of the damaging provisions that need to be corrected.
However, I am heartened that this bill would at least require a mandatory review of the act's operation in the next Parliament. I view this as a tacit admission by the government that it knows that this bill contains problematic sections that will need to be fixed. In fact, it was a Liberal amendment to move the review from five years to three years. I think the Liberals know that this bill has flaws that will need to be fixed.
Truthfully, I would prefer to get it right the first time around. As it currently stands, the federal government has left the heavy lifting of legalization to the provincial, territorial, municipal, and indigenous governments. The task force on cannabis legalization was very clear in the lead up to legalization that the federal government should “Take a leadership role to ensure that capacity is developed among all levels of government prior to the start of the regulatory regime”. Yet, when asked if the federal government had even been talking with first nations and indigenous governments on a nation-to-nation basis to ensure that capacity were developed, Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day told the health committee, “No, they haven't, and again, it's going to be really critical.”
By freezing out stakeholders and insisting on meeting an arbitrary politically motivated deadline, the Liberal government is clearly sacrificing quality legislation for speed. This has led to the emergence of a complex patchwork of different approaches to cannabis across Canada, and will put many Canadians in the position of perhaps breaking the law unintentionally. For example, some provinces may not allow any home growing. In fact, Quebec just announced this very measure. Some provinces may choose to lower the public possession limit from 30 grams. Some provinces may forbid public consumption. Some municipalities may ban cannabis sales and consumption completely.
I want to be clear to any Canadians watching this. The Liberals put forth legislation that will allow the provinces to deviate from people being allowed to grow four plants at home and from being legally able to carry 30 grams of cannabis in public. For those who are searching for and have waited for decades and decades for cannabis legalization, they should be aware that federal leadership in a national legalized structure for cannabis is not going to be delivered by this bill. We see that already, as I have mentioned, with the Quebec example. In that province, one will not be able to grow plants at home. I do not think that is what cannabis advocates have been working for all these years.
The Liberals' recent attempt to unilaterally impose an excise tax without consulting other jurisdictions directly contradicted the recommendations of the McClellan report. The Liberals' attempt to keep half the excise tax revenues at the federal level ignores the fact that the bulk of expenses related to legalization will fall to the provincial, territorial, and municipal levels.
For our part, Canada's New Democrats will continue to reach across the aisle to help ensure that legalization is done right and on time. Ever since the Liberal government of the day ignored the recommendations of the 1971 Le Dain commission, our party has been calling on successive governments to stop saddling Canadians with criminal records for using cannabis. We strongly believe and continue to maintain that these unjustifiable arrests must end as soon as possible.
I would be remiss not to use this occasion to outline some simple truths about cannabis that I fear are far too often drowned out of the public discussion by prohibitionist fearmongering. Number one, in almost all contexts, alcohol and tobacco are far more personally and socially harmful than cannabis. Cannabis does not make people aggressive, a person cannot fatally overdose on cannabis, and cannabis is not a carcinogen. We heard this point repeated over and over again by experts at the health committee.
Number two, cannabis has a broad range of therapeutic benefits. It is used as an effective medicine by Canadian patients suffering from conditions ranging from epilepsy to PTSD, from cancer to arthritis. I believe if this point were properly understood by the Liberals, they would not recently have announced a plan without consulting patients to impose a new excise tax of $1 per gram on medicinal cannabis, or 10% of the final retail price, whichever is higher.
At the end of 2016, there were 129,876 Canadian patients with authorizations from physicians to use medicinal cannabis, and since the first Canadian veteran was reimbursed on compassionate grounds in 2007, Veterans Affairs Canada now covers the cost of medicinal cannabis for over 3,000 Canadian veterans, yet the government wants to tax them.
Shockingly, however, the federal government does not cover medicinal cannabis for indigenous people, a discriminatory policy that puts a lie to the Prime Minister's claim that his most important relationship is with indigenous communities.
The Liberals' medicinal cannabis tax is misconceived, unfair to patients, and damaging to public health. It is simply poor public policy. The cost of medicinal cannabis is already high, given that unlike prescription drugs and medically necessary devices, it is not tax exempt under federal law. Medicinal cannabis is neither exempt from the GST nor eligible for reimbursement under nearly all public or private insurance plans, so patients are currently forced to spend hundreds, or thousands, of dollars each month to acquire a sufficient supply of medicinal cannabis, or choose a riskier option, like a prescription opioid because it is tax exempt and covered for reimbursement. That is perverse.
Medicinal cannabis should be treated like other medically prescribed therapeutic medicines. Looking forward, New Democrats will use every tool at our disposal to scrap that flawed policy decision.
Third, just yesterday, in the House, the Conservative member for Thornhill told Canadians that legal cannabis is just as dangerous as fentanyl, and home-grown cannabis is “virtually the same as putting fentanyl on a shelf within reach of kids”. This is an outrageous and dangerous falsehood, and grossly insensitive to those who have lost loved ones to fentanyl overdoses. Trying to capitalize on their personal tragedy for political purposes is shameful, callous, and unsupportable. I call on the Conservative Party to correct the record and for the member to offer a sincere apology to every Canadian who has been affected by the fentanyl crisis.
That brings me to truth number four. Cannabis and cannabis concentrates have been consumed by humans for thousands of years without bringing about the alarmist predictions peddled by prohibitionists. Cannabis is not a carcinogen, there are no lethal overdoses from cannabis and cannabinoids, and cannabis can be used to reduce anxiety and enhance enjoyment of many activities. Much like unwinding with a glass of wine, millions of adult Canadians find occasional cannabis consumption a relaxing and pleasurable way to spend their free time.
Ultimately, I have come to understand that a genuinely legalized and properly regulated cannabis industry in Canada has enormous potential in many respects. Done right, an appropriate legal approach can achieve impressive benefits economically, technologically, and medicinally. It can advance Canada's cannabis producers, retailers, and innovators on a global scale. It can generate world-leading intellectual property, innovation, and sustainable development benefits, and it can help establish an evidence-based understanding of cannabis that has been so marred by decades of misinformation and mythology.
At the very time that many other jurisdictions are also grappling with the failures of prohibition, why on earth would we pre-emptively cut ourselves off at the knees by legally prohibiting cannabis exports to markets where it would be legal to import it, and yet Bill C-45 explicitly prohibits all importation and exportation of recreational cannabis. The world is rapidly waking up to the potential of safe, regulated, and legal cannabis products. Countries like France, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malta, Croatia, and Slovenia look to reexamine their approaches to cannabis, and Canada should be establishing itself as a first-to-market world leader. While the U.S. cannabis industry continues to be hindered by the Trump administration's reefer madness thinking about cannabis, Canada should be taking advantage by empowering our entrepreneurs and developing export markets all around the world.
Millions of Canadians use cannabis. They have used it in the past, they will use it today, and they will continue to use it in the years to come. They are not criminals. They are our parents, teachers, friends, colleagues, loved ones, and citizens of this great country who voted for genuine cannabis legalization in the last election. The NDP will continue to work positively and constructively to develop the smartest, safest, and most effective cannabis legislation and regulations in the world, because it is time we delivered.