Thank you. It's an honour and a privilege to have been invited to make submissions before this committee. My name is Michael Spratt. I'm a criminal defence lawyer. I'll leave it at that in terms of an introduction of myself. I have a more verbose introduction in my written submission, which should be translated and distributed to all of you shortly.
On February 21, 2010, while a young man named Michael Swan was watching Canada's gold medal hockey team play the United States, three young men from Toronto were driving down a dark highway toward Ottawa. The Toronto three, as they would come to be known, had a plan to make some easy money. They were going to steal Mr. Swan's marijuana. Swan was murdered later that night, killed by a single bullet that pierced his lung and tore apart his heart.
There was nothing particularly unique about Mr. Swan. He was a typical teenager. He came from a good family. He had a tight circle of friends and, like almost half of Canadians have done, he smoked marijuana. He also sold it, mostly to his friends, but rumours of his large pot supply had reached Toronto.
I represented one of the Toronto three. Like Swan, he was 19 years old. He had no prior criminal record. Now, he didn't shoot Swan but he was there when Swan was shot and he was convicted of second degree murder and now he's serving a life sentence.
Some cases stick with you. That's an occupational hazard of being a criminal defence lawyer. Often we remember cases because of the result, the unexpected victory or the wrongful conviction. I remember the Swan case because it was tragic. A young man was killed. Three young men were sentenced to life in jail, and a family was destroyed. Sadly, this kind of tragic story is not an isolated incident. The simple fact is that criminalization of marijuana kills.
But that's not all it does. The criminalization of marijuana is a drain on court resources. It diverts law enforcement resources away from truly harmful activities. The prosecution of marijuana offences unduly stigmatizes otherwise law-abiding citizens through the imposition of criminal records. The criminalization of marijuana disproportionately impacts individuals who are young, marginalized, members of over-policed communities, or racialized. In our drug laws there are, indeed, echoes of racism and bias. The government should be commended for taking a tentative first step toward a rational and effective drug policy.
There is promise in Bill C-45, but there are also some serious flaws and room for improvement.
Bill C-45 contains no measures, for example, to address the tens of thousands of Canadians who have been stigmatized through the war on drugs counterproductive imposition of criminal records. The Criminal Records Act was first introduced in 1970 to augment the discretionary royal prerogative of mercy. The act detailed the manner in which persons convicted of criminal offences could apply for forgiveness for past wrongdoings. With the enactment of the Canadian Human Rights Act in 1985, offences for which people were pardoned could no longer be used as a discriminating factor by employers. Similar human rights legislation has been enacted provincially.
It is in the public interest to have a robust system of pardons. It is in the interest of society to reintegrate people back into society after they have committed a criminal offence. The logic is that even a partial removal of stigma of the conviction will aid in reintegration. It is well documented that the continued stigmatization of an offender is ineffective in reducing recidivism and reoffending. Those who have criminal records are less likely to be able to obtain employment, housing, cross international borders, and less able to fully engage in educational opportunities. Bill C-45 does not offer any measure whatsoever, such as an automatic, expedited, or subsidized pardon, to individuals who are convicted of activities that will now be legal under Bill C-45.
Nor does Bill C-45 take the opportunity to amend the currently unconstitutional sections of the Criminal Records Act that retroactively increased pardon ineligibility periods. These retroactive amendments were found to be unconstitutional and in violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by courts in Ontario and British Columbia. I was counsel in the case in Ontario. Both courts declared those amendments, the retroactive increase in pardon eligibility periods, to be of no force and effect. However, that unconstitutional pardon provision remains in force throughout most of Canada. As a result, if you don't live in Ontario or B.C., you're subject to an unconstitutional law.
Bill C-45 should amend the Criminal Records Act to remove the unconstitutional retrospective application of the pardon ineligibility period. It should restore pre-amendment waiting periods, and a further reduction in the waiting period should be available for individuals convicted of marijuana offences, offences that would now be legal under Bill C-45. Currently, 18-year-old, first-time offenders who are convicted of simple possession of marijuana the day before Bill C-45 comes into force will be required to wait five years before they're even eligible to apply for a pardon. Bill C-45 must remedy this situation.
Bill C-45 is also an unnecessarily complex piece of legislation that leaves intact the criminalization of marijuana in too many circumstances. An adult who possesses 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 their 17-year-old friend is a criminal. An adult who grows five marijuana plants is a criminal. An adult who lets his one-metre tall marijuana plant grow an extra centimetre is a criminal.
This continued criminalization is inconsistent with a rational and evidence-based criminal justice policy and will only serve to reduce some of the positive impacts of the bill. The disproportionate effect of continued youth criminalization is anathema to criminal justice policy. Nowhere else in the Criminal Code is a youth criminalized for an act that would be legal if committed by an adult.
A century of failed drug policy has demonstrated that criminalization is a flawed and ineffective mechanism to discourage drug possession. Simply put, there is no reason to believe that making it a criminal offence for a youth to possess five grams of marijuana will deter youth from possessing marijuana any more so than the current criminalization does. The distinction between illicit and legal marijuana and the asymmetrical criminalization of marijuana will only serve to perpetuate the disproportionate enforcement of laws on the young, marginalized, and racialized members of our society.
Even under the new law, marijuana will still be criminal in many circumstances. Only now, the government's vice squad will need to carry rulers and will need to learn to divine the difference between identical legal and illicit forms of marijuana.
Bill C-45 also creates a statutory mechanism for police officers to exercise their discretion to issue tickets in the place of criminal charges for certain offences. This is well meaning but problematic, given what we know about the exercise of police discretion. Remember, police discretion currently operates disproportionally against a variety of marginalized groups. The ticketing option relies on discretionary police action. The choice of whether to lay a criminal charge is also discretionary and the results have been manifest in much of the discriminatory impacts of the current law. There's no reason to believe that's going to change under this ticketing option. The discriminatory impacts of police discretion should be eliminated through full legalization and strict regulation.
To its credit, Bill C-45 does attempt to reduce the prejudicial impacts of this ticketing option and there are provisions designed to prevent the public disclosure of judicial records, but that is dependent on the offender's ability to pay a fine. If a ticket remains unpaid 30 days after a conviction is registered, there is no corresponding right to privacy in a judicial record. I think the problem is obvious. In other words, if you are poor and can't pay a fine, you are further stigmatized through a public record. If you are well off and can pay the fine, your record is sealed. That judicial record is non-disclosable.
Given the research on the impacts of the disclosure of judicial records, the inability of the poor to purchase privacy rights, and the disproportionate enforcement of marijuana offences experienced by marginalized groups, it's quite likely that this ticketing provision in Bill C-45 will be found to violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Canadian drug policy and legislation is in need of reform. The war on drugs has been a complete and abject failure. The social and financial cost of criminalization outweighs any illusory benefit. Every year, scores of young men and women are killed over relatively small amounts of marijuana, killed because marijuana is illegal. Bill C-45 may limit but it does not end this problem.
Continued criminalization imposes unreasonable penalties on a relatively low-risk activity. In the real world, a drug record means limited employment, limited opportunities to travel, and other devastating collateral consequences. Only full legalization, decriminalization, and regulation of marijuana will truly protect society and remove the unfairness, racism, and over-intrusion by the state into an activity that in the context of existing criminal law is relatively harmless.
I would be happy to answer any questions this committee may have.