Evidence of meeting #72 for Health in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site.) The winning word was cannabis.

A video is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Paul Saint-Denis  Senior Counsel, Criminal Law Policy Section, Department of Justice
Olivier Champagne  Legislative Clerk, House of Commons
Diane Labelle  General Counsel, Health Canada Legal Services, Department of Justice
John Clare  Director, Cannabis Legalization and Regulation Branch, Department of Health
Carole Morency  Director General and Senior General Counsel, Criminal Law Policy Section, Department of Justice

9 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bill Casey

Seeing as how it's nine o'clock and we have a full house, we'll resume our committee meeting number 72 on clause-by-clause. Welcome back to all our guests.

Mr. Davies, what took you so long?

9 a.m.

NDP

Don Davies NDP Vancouver Kingsway, BC

Good morning, Mr. Chair.

I have a point of order that I'd like to put forward this morning. Yesterday, there was some mention, I think from the chair, about the calling of potential witnesses. I want to start by pointing out that the motion passed by Mr. Oliver was to call a maximum of 90 witnesses. Now I've heard some numbers thrown around that we've had 96 or 100 witnesses. We could not have heard more than 90, since the motion passed by this committee was for a maximum of 90 and we never amended that motion.

The reason I point that out is that yesterday the chair mentioned that the committee was open to any member to call a potential witness from Uruguay, and on the New Democrats' list, our witness number 17 was Julio Calzada, the secretary-general of Uruguay's National Drug Council, who spearheaded Uruguay's cannabis legalization.

Because there are only 90 witnesses and all the parties had witnesses proportional to their representation in the House of Commons, the NDP were only allowed 12 witnesses. Our witness was number 17, and we never got that far. However, we would have gotten to our witness if the Liberals would have passed either the NDP motion to have an additional two days of hearings or the Conservative motion to hold another six days of hearings. If either of these motions had passed, we could have heard from a lot more witnesses.

When the chair said yesterday that no party nominated a witness from Uruguay or any of the other groups, that was not correct. In fact, we could have heard from those witnesses had the Liberals not tried to limit witnesses to only five days. I thought we would correct the record lest any Canadians watching be misled about the number of witnesses who appeared before this committee or who was actually nominated by the various parties to testify before the committee but ultimately weren't called.

9 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bill Casey

I thank you for your clarification. I understand we had over 100 witnesses, and I acknowledge that the NDP had Uruguay on the list, but it wasn't a priority on the list. Nevertheless, I appreciate your correction.

(On clause 11)

9 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bill Casey

All right. Let's carry on now with NDP-11.

Mr. Davies, do you want to lead?

9 a.m.

NDP

Don Davies NDP Vancouver Kingsway, BC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Picking up where we left off yesterday, we're talking about the penalty provisions of clause 11 that have to do with importing and exporting. In keeping with the government's approach to this bill, the provision I seek to amend with this proposal is the 14-year maximum penalty for violations of this section.

I pointed out, throughout our amendments, that the bill continues the criminalization and prohibitionist model as an approach to cannabis regulation. In my respectful submission, this is completely contrary to the vast bulk of the weight of testimony we heard from witnesses on this bill. We heard that the harms around cannabis are caused not really by the substance but by the criminalization and prohibition model that has been applied against this substance for the last 100-plus years.

Interestingly, not one witness of the 90 witnesses that came before this panel testified that these penalties were appropriate. Not a single justification was offered by a witness that 14 years was an appropriate penalty for a violation of any section of this act.

On the other hand, every single witness who is directed to these penalty provisions—mostly called by the New Democrats by the way—testified that these figures, these maximum penalties were unreasonable, were disproportionate, and were completely out of sync with the reality of what's going on in Canadian courts today, and worse, are harmful.

We heard that these penalties actually are applied disproportionately to young people, marginalized Canadians, racialized Canadians, and poor Canadians. The stigma and the harms on the social determinants of health by incarceration and getting criminal records for possessing or dealing with a relatively benign substance of cannabis does a lot of harm to Canadians.

Yet this committee rejected every one of the New Democrat amendments yesterday, and I expect will do so with this one, to reduce that 14-year penalty down to a reasonable amount, either a fine or a short jail sentence for a repeated or serious offence.

That is completely ignoring the evidence that this committee heard. The government can go ahead; the Liberals can do what they want. They can go ahead and pass the bill, but Canadians watching this should know the Liberals are passing this bill with 14-year sentences and with total disregard to the evidence that was heard before this committee, in total disregard for the harm that criminalization is going to cause. They can pass this but they've basically rendered moot, completely academic, the real evidence that was heard before this committee about the appropriateness of this penalty.

This amendment would reduce the 14-year penalty down to fines. The evidence also suggested this was much more appropriate. If we're going to legalize cannabis, and regulate it as a commodity, then the proper way to regulate this is similar to alcohol and tobacco, where monetary fines are used as a way of enforcing what is going to be a commercial commodity.

That's an appropriate way, not to jail people but rather to deal with this through fines, exactly like you do for tobacco and alcohol.

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

9:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bill Casey

Thank you.

Mr. Ayoub.

9:05 a.m.

Liberal

Ramez Ayoub Liberal Thérèse-De Blainville, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

We have said this already, but I will repeat it for the sake of the cause: the primary objective of this bill is protecting our young people. We are legalizing marijuana within a strict framework. This legislation is not comparable to the treatment of alcohol or cigarettes. As stated before, it is not full legalization.

Mr. Davies, my colleague from the NDP, has said that the penalties in the bill are completely harmful, but that is not true. I am always concerned when I hear that kind of comment, in view of the testimony we have heard. We have heard that, according to scientific evidence, marijuana is harmful to the development of young people's brains. I repeat that the primary objective of the bill is to protect the health of our children. The goal of this approach is to deter criminal groups that want to make a profit and that currently have a market. Even if we try to ignore it, the fact is that this market does exist. If we do not take appropriate action through this bill to impose prison terms or substantial fines, we will not achieve our goal of deterrence.

When there are trials and charges, the judges need the freedom to judge the situation and determine how severe a penalty to impose. There is a maximum, but the judge will be free to set precedent in the application of the law.

For that reason, I am in favour of this approach. Otherwise, the deterrent effect would be watered down too much. If we remove all of that, there would be no penalty, and that is not the direction we want to take. We want to be sure to protect our young people by getting rid of the black market, that is, the organized crime market.

9:10 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bill Casey

Thank you very much.

Mr. Oliver.

9:10 a.m.

Liberal

John Oliver Liberal Oakville, ON

Thank you.

I want to echo what my colleague Mr. Ayoub said. Mr. Davies seems to feel there is a large audience watching, which he's addressing. I want to emphasize again that he said marijuana, cannabis, is relatively benign. Out of the 109 witnesses who came and spoke to this committee, there were many, many health professionals, physicians, nursing groups, and youth workers who came in. Every single one of them said marijuana is not relatively benign, and that this is a harmful drug for young Canadians. For any young Canadian listening, what we need to correct with a large public awareness campaign is the misunderstanding by youth that marijuana is a benign drug. It is not. For young people this can cause both lasting and permanent brain damage or cognitive damage. It is not a benign drug.

As Mr. Ayoub has quite succinctly said, the intent of this legislation is to ensure that those people who would deal this drug to our young Canadians need to be aware that there is going to be a very stiff fine or penalties if they chronically and repetitively abuse this law.

9:10 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bill Casey

Thank you.

Mr. Van Kesteren.

9:10 a.m.

Conservative

Dave Van Kesteren Conservative Chatham-Kent—Leamington, ON

Thank you, Chair.

I repeat what I said yesterday with Mr. Davies. At least I think his approach is honest, that if marijuana is going to be legalized, let's legalize it. When I listen to the Liberals talk about the dangers of marijuana, and rightfully so, I wonder how many moms and dads, soccer moms, called them and said, “Doggone it, are you going to pass this legislation? I'm so worried about Billy. He's been selling marijuana. My kids are going to be smoking it. He shouldn't be touching that stuff until he's 18.” What a ridiculous argument. When you pontificate on the dangers of marijuana, that just proves what a bad bill this is.

At some point, Mr. Chair, I'm going to ask that we resume my motion, and that we dismiss this, because I hope there are a whole lot of people watching, and I hope there are a lot of people who recognize what's going to take place if this legislation passes. You opened it up and I couldn't resist stepping in. Let's get it on the record that, yes, this is a dangerous drug, and that this will be harmful to young people possibly to the age of 25 and we don't even know if it's worse past that date.

I firmly believe that there are many Canadians who are sitting in the background wondering what's going on here. Is this really happening?

I'm hoping that the argument that Mr. Davies makes causes us to reflect on just what we're doing. The only logical conclusion would be that we need to scrap this or at least talk about this, put it into the public forum, talk about it, go to town halls, talk to the moms and dads, the people, the police officers, and really get this on the record. We haven't done that. We haven't done that. We have not had the opportunity to do that. I know I haven't. I know that the government hasn't asked me to go and get a report from my constituents, and I know that's true with all my colleagues.

Please, Mr. Davies, keep it up. I think you're doing a great job. Let's really reflect on what we're doing.

Thank you.

9:15 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bill Casey

Mr. Davies, keep it up.

9:15 a.m.

NDP

Don Davies NDP Vancouver Kingsway, BC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I have just a few comments before we move to the vote. I can't let another reference to 109 witnesses pass. That's simply wrong. If this committee is going to ignore flat-out evidence....

I'll read the motion or a portion of it:

...and that the Chair be empowered to coordinate the witnesses, to a maximum of 90 witnesses, the resources, and scheduling....

That's Mr. Oliver's own motion. His motion said “a maximum of 90 witnesses”, but he says we heard from 109. If that's the kind of disregard for the truth in evidence that we're going to hear, then this is truly a bit of a kangaroo hearing.

I don't think there's a wide audience watching, but it was my motion to televise this hearing because I think Canadians have a right to watch what's going on with what the Liberals call this groundbreaking legislation. They should be able to see how their representatives talk about this.

We're not going to get very far if people use straw-man arguments. I didn't say benign. I said relatively benign, and I did make references to having penalties relative to tobacco and alcohol, which I've heard not a word about. You don't get 14 years for an adult selling a carton of cigarettes to a 17-year-old. That carton of cigarettes will hook that person, and it will kill that person. Used exactly as designed, it will give them cancer.

Where do I see the Liberal government bringing in 14-year sentences for tobacco or alcohol? They don't do it. I don't know why. Maybe it's because the big tobacco or big alcohol lobbies are too strong and they don't want to take them on.

I want to bring it back to the motion. We're talking about the importing and exporting section of the act. It says, “Unless authorized under this Act, the importation or exportation of cannabis is prohibited,” and, “It is prohibited to possess cannabis for the purpose of exporting it.” This section has nothing to do with children. This has to do with exporting cannabis and what the proper penalty should be for importing or exporting.

If criminalization of cannabis and giving hefty jail sentences protected children, then maybe Mr. Ayoub or other Liberal members could explain why Canada has the second-highest or the highest rate of use of cannabis by young people in the world when we have full criminalization and life sentences. The argument that's being made is absurd and it's belied by the evidence.

You can't say we have a 14-year sentence here because we want to protect our children. Life sentences didn't protect our children. That's the evidence that we heard. In fact that's the very reason the government says they want to legalize cannabis, to better control it and get it out of the hands of criminals. The criminalization approach doesn't work and if anybody in this room sat through the evidence and came out with a conclusion that criminalization of cannabis works to protect children, then they weren't listening to the evidence that I was listening to.

Finally, for my last point, Mr. Ayoub made a reference to giving judges full discretion. One of the reasons 14 years is a bad choice for this is that it does not give judges full discretion. As I've been pointing out repeatedly, any sentence of more than 10 years, or any provision that has a maximum sentence of more than 10 years, ties the judge's hands from giving a conditional sentence to anybody. Whether a first-time offender or a third-time offender, they can't give a conditional sentence to them because of the use of 14 years. If you move that to nine years, you then give judges full discretion, yet for some reason the Liberals on this committee and the Conservatives continue to vote against that, tying the judges' hands so that no conditional sentences can be offered to anybody convicted under this section.

That's not only poor policy-making; it's contrary to how the Liberals acted in last Parliament when they voted against Conservative legislation that took away the discretion of judges to give conditional sentences in this manner.

Those are my points, Mr. Chair. I think we're ready for the vote when you're ready.

9:15 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bill Casey

Dr. Eyolfson.

9:15 a.m.

Liberal

Doug Eyolfson Liberal Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia—Headingley, MB

Thanks. I'd like to say a few things for the record.

Mr. Van Kesteren, I have talked, as you say, to soccer moms. I've talked to school principals and teachers who were, in fact, very much in favour of this. As for town halls, many MPs, including some Conservative MPs, had town halls on this. I can tell you that at the town hall in my riding, which has actually traditionally been a Conservative riding, the support was overwhelmingly in favour of this legislation.

In regard to Mr. Davies' comment about whether or not we're taking on big tobacco, we are tabling Bill S-5, which is on plain packaging of tobacco. We are taking on big tobacco.

9:20 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bill Casey

Mr. Ayoub.

9:20 a.m.

Liberal

Ramez Ayoub Liberal Thérèse-De Blainville, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Let me reiterate what I said yesterday. Our approach to the legalization of marijuana is halfway between the different ways of looking at the issue.

For their part, the Conservatives would rather we do nothing at all. They do not offer any observations and do not in any way acknowledge what is happening in reality. They have their blinders on and really do not want to see the evidence. In my riding, 45% of young people have used marijuana in the past year. That is the reality. It is worrisome because these young people do not know who they are dealing with. For my part, I never sent my children to buy any substance that is controlled by organized crime, which encourages us to use it even though we do not know where it comes from. That is my first observation.

On the other hand, there are those who would completely open the door to cannabis use. Doing so would be disregarding the fact that cannabis use has effects, just as alcohol and cigarettes do. It must be noted, however, that the legalization of cannabis is for adults. Legalizing these products for adults means giving them the choice to use products that are freely sold, while ensuring that these adults are informed and aware of the effects of using them.

One of the positive things about the cannabis discussion we are having across Canada is precisely that we can inform people, hold public meetings, and encourage discussion between young people and their parents. Right now, many parents whose children use cannabis do not talk about it. Many parents are surprised by the thought that one of their children might have consumed it. I have three children myself. Based on the statistics for my region, at least one if not two of the three has consumed it. That is worrisome. That is an average, of course.

There is a happy medium between doing nothing and full legalization. We have to tackle this problem and that is exactly what we are doing.

When parents receive information, they are happy to pass it on to their children, to talk to them about it, and to play a role in prevention. Parents do have a role to play. I told them that during the consultation I held. Parents have a role to play in the use of cannabis, just as they have a role to play in teaching them about cigarettes, health, alcohol, and driving. They have a role to play in the general education of their children.

As legislators, our role is to develop legislation to control that and set us on the right course in terms of our children's health and protection. What we are doing with respect to marijuana has never been done in recent decades. We are making huge progress right now, and I am very happy and proud to be playing a role in that.

9:20 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bill Casey

Ms. Gladu.

9:20 a.m.

Conservative

Marilyn Gladu Conservative Sarnia—Lambton, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I want to respond to some of Mr. Ayoub's comments. He indicated that nearly 40% of people ages 18 to 35 are consuming marijuana, and that is true, but overall in Canada, 88% of Canadians do not use marijuana. We are standing up for those people who don't use the product and are going to receive all of the bad consequences from this bill: the increased impaired drunk driving, the fact that children are not protected in this bill and they can easily get access in the home grow situation. There is all of the damage that will happen to the youth's brains that will result in mental health issues. That's who we're standing up for here, and that's why we're so opposed to this bill. It's flawed in so many ways.

I don't take exception to the objections that Mr. Davies is bringing. That's what's important here.

In Quebec—I'm not sure if you're aware—66% of Quebeckers are strongly opposed to the legalization of marijuana. There are a bunch of Canadians we are here to represent today.

Thank you.

9:20 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bill Casey

Mr. Van Kesteren.

9:20 a.m.

Conservative

Dave Van Kesteren Conservative Chatham-Kent—Leamington, ON

Now we're clearly on the record.

Mr. Davies, we oppose everything in this bill. You and I spoke privately, and I applaud you for your honesty. You're absolutely correct in much of your argument, but we will oppose this bill.

If you think this is something Canadians want, then I dare you. Let's have a referendum. I dare you. Let's stop this nonsense right now, and let's go to the people and have an honest chat about marijuana. Let's have a referendum. You would never do that.

9:25 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bill Casey

Make it a quick one, Mr. Davies. We're way over.

9:25 a.m.

NDP

Don Davies NDP Vancouver Kingsway, BC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Just briefly, the amendment I proposed is not to take away any kind of consequence for importing or exporting under this. It's to replace the 14-year maximum with a fine of not more than $300,000, which is a significant fine, or imprisonment of not more than two years less a day, or to both. It just brings the penalties down to a fine or potentially a jail sentence, but a reasonable one in this situation.

To respond to Mr. Ayoub's comments, I would like to say that the NDP is not suggesting that there be no consequence for this. We're suggesting that there be a reasonable consequence for the offence.

9:25 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bill Casey

Seeing no more speakers on the speakers list, we'll go for a vote on NDP-11.

9:25 a.m.

NDP

Don Davies NDP Vancouver Kingsway, BC

I call for a recorded vote, Mr. Chair.