Mr. Speaker, I rise to speak in support of Bill C-7.
The revisions to the bill, the changes made since it passed second reading in the House, combine two quite different approaches to the control of drugs. The approaches are different but they are actually complementary.
The first enshrines an attitude of tolerance, compassion and concern for the drug addicted person. The government believes that someone convicted of a drug offence, a user who shows genuine desire to recover from his or her addiction deserves the chance and opportunity to rebuild and renew their lives on a healthy, law-abiding basis.
This component speaks therefore of rehabilitation and speaks to the health aspect of drug use.
The second approach is to reinforce our longstanding condemnation of violent behaviour or any drug dealing that harms our youth and other vulnerable citizens.
The government believes drug offences and the negative social impact of drug offences escalate directly in proportion to the age of the person, which means the younger the person, the greater the social and physical harm that occurs as a result of the use of drugs.
These approaches to the control of drugs reflect the spirit of the red book "Creating Opportunity". A principal objective of this book is to strengthen Canadian society by protecting individuals from crime and violence on the streets and in the playgrounds.
Bill C-7 works to achieve this end. It clearly identifies a need for extra protection against crimes around schools where young people are involved. However, it goes further in creating opportunity. It creates opportunity for offenders to get treatment. It creates opportunity for enforcement to be more effective. It creates opportunity for the justice system to deal more even handedly with the various substances and offences that are the subject of the bill.
Bill C-7 is more than a housekeeping bill. It achieves a balance between the need for compassionate health and social components of drug use and the need to punish and deal with the criminal and violent aspects of drug use.
True to this purpose, we have brought the Narcotic Control Act and parts of the Food and Drugs Act together to deal with controlled substances and narcotic preparations. It modernizes procedure to a certain extent. It expands control over a wider range of substances, but it is more comprehensive than that.
In the case of one substance that has caused major concern for policy makers and the public over many years, it incorporates a revised and more current understanding of how Canadians want to deal with marijuana. Cannabis and its derivatives from now on will have a distinct schedule in the bill, schedule I(i). Cannabis has been set apart from other hard drugs. It is being treated separately.
As we will see from this amended bill, government has taken very seriously the concerns expressed by witnesses of committee hearings and also by members of the House who have come together to tell us what they think of the bill. I am therefore pleased to say changes and measures have been instituted in order to reflect a more Liberal policy with regard to harm reduction, rehabilitation and the societal aspects of drug use.
Hon. members know the consultative process is inherent and very important in the parliamentary committee system. Committees collect the views of people on the street. One of the strengths of the process is that it brings forward a range of opinions and perspectives not necessarily obvious to those who prepare the original drafts of legislation. On this note I congratulate all members of the subcommittee from all parties and thank all witnesses who provided testimony on this legislation.
When we start talking about illicit substances such as marijuana and cocaine people want to broaden the horizons. Many of the witnesses who came to the subcommittee on health were not really addressing Bill C-7 specifically. They wanted to put broader issues on the agenda such as a more socially responsible approach to dealing with cannabis. It is argued there may be times when people are guilty of simple possession by aberration. They have been to a party, accepted a gift and have been caught. In such a circumstance the criminal mark should not be on record for the rest of their lives.
It cannot be denied that a large number of Canadians are at least tolerant of soft drug use. They have heard a former Prime Minister and the President of the United States admit to experimenting with
marijuana. They see courts routinely granting absolute or conditional discharges for simple possession charges while imposing fines for simple traffic violations.
Some people in subcommittee were even saying we should decriminalize marijuana. However, by international law we cannot decriminalize it. We have to consider it a criminal offence but we can deal with the consequences associated with marijuana. That is one of the changes that has come through in this newly amended bill.
Specifically for possession of marijuana, 30 grams or less, we have reduced the seriousness of the offence. The negative impact on someone charged with this offence will be changed. No fingerprints or photographs will be taken by police officers. No traceable record will appear in national criminal databases. The law has been modified.
This does not mean that the penalties have been reduced. They have not. The penalty for possession of 30 grams or less of cannabis continues to be a $1,000 fine or six months or both. It is the ancillary impacts that will change. A conviction on this charge will not curb one's ability to travel internationally, for instance. It will not interfere with getting a job.
Another concern raised in subcommittee was to put something in the bill to ask the courts to move toward rehabilitation and treatment instead of automatically treating all users as hardened criminals. Therefore, the introduction of section 11, which deals with sentencing, addresses this concern. Judges are encouraged to order rehabilitation and treatment in appropriate circumstances.
This said, it was not the government's intention that the bill would alter or review existing drug policy. It was meant to bring aspects of administration up to date from existing legislation that dates back to the 1960s, and it gives effect to Canada's commitments on the various international agreements dealing with narcotics and psychotropic substances.
There is a change in penalties for trafficking in three kilograms of cannabis or less. Here the maximum penalty is lowered from 14 years down to five years less a day. The reason for this is not because the gravity of the offence has been diminished. In fact, the subcommittee wanted to deal with trafficking as harshly. However, the lesser sentence achieves another goal: it leads to a streamlining of the judicial process. It hastens cases through the courts by eliminating requirements for preliminary hearings and trials by jury. It is not expected to change actual sentencing patterns. Even though the courts have been able to go to 14 years, they have not really been giving sentences anywhere near that length.
From now on drug charges will represent the true offences. Until now, when trafficking has been the issue prosecutors would often reduce it to a possession charge, rather than proceed through a full pre-trial and trial by jury. Now prosecutors will be more likely to lay the charges they should have been laying. In fact there is no intention to give any signal that the penalties that are currently being given for the offence are not appropriate. This is not getting soft on traffickers. Streamlining the prosecution of these offences would be a net gain for the criminal justice process but would not mean an actual reduction in sentences, given current practice.
I alluded to the approach this bill takes to discouraging violence and any drug dealings involving youth. The approach is simply the following. Offences under Bill C-7 have penalties attached to them, including imprisonment. Judges have discretion in sentencing and may choose not to impose a prison sentence in any particular case. However, if an offence is accompanied by violence or the threat of violence, or if it takes place in or near the grounds of a school, or if it involves dealing with someone under the age of 18, the court is to consider any of these circumstances an aggravating factor. If it decides in such a case not to impose a prison sentence, then the bill requires that the court give reasons for such a decision.
There are very substantive changes between the current Bill C-7 we are discussing and its original version. I have mentioned the instructions to the court to consider rehabilitation and treatment at sentencing and the reduction in the impact of a conviction for simple possession of cannabis. The following is a representative sample of a dozen or more other changes to the bill.
The previous subsection 3(1), which dealt with controlling unlisted substances that have an effect similar to scheduled drugs, has been completely removed. It has been deleted. It had been objected that the conduct subject to criminal sanction in this subsection had not been specified enough and that herbs or natural extracts might be captured. Removing this subsection should remove all doubts on that score to those who sell herbs and have been concerned about this. It is no longer going to affect an individual even if they thought it might have. Now they need not worry on that count.
Subsection 30(1) has been amended to ensure that inspectors have reasonable grounds to believe that a place is used for an illicit purpose mentioned in the bill before entering the place.
Paragraph 30(1)(c) is amended to exclude the possibility that inspectors can examine a person's medical record and therefore infringe on the confidentiality between physician and patient.
Paragraph 54(1)(h) is amended to eliminate any risk that regulations made under the act could apply to medical practitioners or other professionals who are not targeted. That was a concern from those professionals who under the act were licensed to give prescription drugs. However, the definition of trafficking has been
broadened to include the sale by a licensed practitioner of a prescription to obtain drugs.
Every one of the concerns raised in subcommittee has been carefully examined in the reconstruction of this bill. This is not to say that every concern that was expressed has led to an amendment. Some were felt to be without foundation, such as the fear that the bill would threaten the viability of the existing needle exchange program. It was decided after examination that there was no such threat and there needed to be no amendment.
Other observations or criticisms will be more properly addressed in a general drug policy review rather than in Bill C-7. In fact that was a recommendation from the committee.
It has been suggested by some that this is not a health bill. Many of the issues that have come up deal with justice and enforcement. It should be made abundantly clear that controlled substances are not all bad substances. Many of them indeed are very good when used as prescribed. They are important to the health of the nation. They are major tools in the medical kit. Drugs and drug abuse are basically social and health problems. They find their way, however, into the criminal justice system not because they naturally and necessarily belong there, but because we have yet to devise a better method of control.
Prohibition has had very limited success and very high cost. Many believe that programs to increase awareness, education, and treatment would be more successful for less money and less violence in drug enforcement. In fact the main thrust of Bill C-7 is that it allows for these controlled substances to be used for medical and scientific purposes. We need codeine and morphine and similar drugs to treat patients. Unfortunately, they are also subject to abuse. Therefore, we need to build into the law how we deal with their diversion to non-medical purposes and their abuse potential. That is where most of the justice issues come into play in this bill.
The bill facilitates the placing of safeguards at all levels of production and distribution of high-risk drugs and allows them to be used as prescription drugs. This reduces the risk that drugs produced for legitimate purposes would be diverted into the illegal street market.
Canadians will have access, as before, to physicians, dentists, pharmacists, and other licensed health care providers for whatever drug they need to treat their illnesses. They need not be concerned about that. Bill C-7 is not a catch-all for pharmaceutical preparations. It does not affect antibiotics, for example. It names clearly the drugs it would control, which are generally those used to treat pain and many psychotrophic or mood-modifying drugs.
By including the concepts of treatment and rehabilitation, this bill also acknowledges the important health dimensions of drug abuse. It begins to rebalance that emphasis on substance over user and coercion over persuasion. It is not a new policy and it is not even a big change, but it is an important shift in perspective. It opens the way to alternate approaches and choices in addressing a disease that afflicts hundreds of thousands of Canadians and the social well-being of Canada.
Bill C-7 is meant to control dangerous substances. We want to control these substances because in the wrong hands and used in the wrong way they can cause great harm to Canadians and to the social fabric of this country.
I say this even though I recognize that drug use is not a major concern for Canadians in general. In fact an Environics poll that focused on justice and crime issues last year found that only two per cent of respondents said that illicit drug use personally troubled them far more than other crimes. This was far behind phenomena such as domestic violence, youth gangs, breaking and entering, and crimes against children.
There is another reason to control these drugs, and I believe it is a far more important reason. Many substances we are dealing with here have strong medical components. This bill aims to make them available to health professionals and their patients for legitimate medical purposes. These substances, as I said before, are an essential part of our armaments against human suffering. We need painkillers, tranquillizers, and similar drugs to treat patients suffering from pain, anxiety, stress, depression, and other illnesses that in fact are born of our age of worry and anxiety. These are substances for medical use.
Because Bill C-7 sharpens the tools we use to control the production and distribution of high-risk preparations that can be made available safely for prescription drugs does not mean that we are condemning those drugs. Patients will continue to have access to prescriptions through their doctors and pharmacists. Patients will always have what they need to treat illness and the medical records of patients will not be violated.
Health Canada's goals and priorities have repeatedly found support from the Canadian public, who rate the performance of health care in the current system at the very top of government activities. This is from Ekos Research.
Side by side with medicare on Health Canada's priority list is the protection against risks to Canadians' health. Therefore, illegally obtained and unsafe drugs are among those risks. Drug dependence is not only a criminal issue, it is very much a health and social issue. With some of these amendments we have tried to bring a positive approach to treatment programs for those who are afflicted by drug addictions. We support the help and appropriate treatment
for those who want to get back their health and resume a normal life. We will continue to authorize methadone treatment for those who have a drug dependence. Methadone, as members will know, is a controlled substance that assists many opiate users to re-establish a constructive life. I want to assure the House that is not changing.
The department is also responsible for the national program to reduce the spread of HIV and AIDS. We will not be affecting the needle exchange programs, which in many communities have had massive positive results and have been so successful in curbing the spread of HIV among intravenous drug users. Medical devices such as needles were deliberately excluded from criminal sanctions in Bill C-7. So this effective public health program in fact will continue its good work.
The bill protects the rational use of some controlled substances as medicines while acting against the illicit distribution of these same substances. It recognizes that controlled drugs are indispensable and that their availability should not be restricted or compromised. It promotes the judicious use of medications by indicating ways in which controlled drugs can be handled, distributed, and used. These substances are included in the legislation, as I said, to protect the health and safety of the public.
For example, Bill C-7 makes it possible for cancer patients and those who are terminally ill to obtain pain relief from prescribed medications such as morphine. In a hospital setting or for out-patients under strict medical supervision, even heroin is available for the treatment of pain and suffering. This legislation ensures that cocaine can be safely used in examination and in surgical procedures. Other medications aimed at treating less severe but still incapacitating conditions such as migraines are contained in the schedule of substances we are dealing with here. These will continue to be made accessible under this bill.
Some of these drugs are also used on the street and therefore are subject to trafficking. While these substances all have the opportunity to create good and help patients who are ill, they have a strong potential for abuse. It is not surprising that the enforcement aspect of Bill C-7 has therefore attracted attention. But we must not forget that access to these substances must be preserved for the benefit of all those who are afflicted, which may include a majority of Canadians at some time in their lives. These substances are powerful. They have the power to do good, but also the power to do harm. If a drug is prescribed by a physician and if you use it more than is prescribed by a physician, the addictive properties of these drugs could be forgotten. We do not want that harm to occur to patients.
As legislators, our task is to find a balance that will maximize good and minimize harm. I believe we have struck the appropriate balance in this legislation. I urge hon. members of the House to support it, as I will.