Mr. Speaker, it gives me great pleasure to speak today on Bill C-7, the controlled drugs and substances act.
Bill C-7 consolidates and supplements the Narcotics Control Act and parts III and IV of the Food and Drugs Act. It combines a regulatory scheme for drugs used in medicine with the criminal law regime for illicit substances.
The bill is a reintroduction of Bill C-85, the Psychoactive Substance Control Act, introduced by the Conservative government in the previous Parliament. Bill C-85 died on the Order Paper in the last Parliament due to the election call. While it was reintroduced into this Parliament by the Minister of Health, aspects of it fall under the concerns of the Department of Justice and the Solicitor General of Canada.
One main object of the bill as originally conceived was to bring our drug laws into conformity with provisions in certain international agreements we had signed. These agreements include the
Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, 1971, and the relevant portions of the United Nations convention against illicit traffic in narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, 1988.
In keeping with the spirit of these instruments, Bill C-7 adopted an interdiction and criminalization approach to the production, traffic and the possession and use of illicit substances.
The legislation was also supposed to cohere with Canada's drug strategy which had been unveiled in May 1987. The key object of the drug strategy is to reduce harm to individuals, families and communities caused by alcohol and other drugs. Canada's drug strategy was designed to place greater emphasis on reducing demand for illicit substances through prevention, education and drug treatment programs instead of relying solely on the interdiction efforts of police and penal institutions for the reduction of the supply of illicit drugs.
In contrast to these methods, harm reduction seeks to reduce the harm caused by those who have a problem with substance abuse, including harm done to themselves, to their families and to other persons. It takes a public health approach to the problem of drug abuse rather than a moralistic, punitive one which views such abuse as criminal in and of itself.
The bill passed second reading and was sent to a subcommittee of the Standing Committee of Health in April last year. As members will recall, the red book promised us that MPs would be given a greater role in drafting legislation through their work on House of Commons committees. The work done on Bill C-7 by the subcommittee chaired by the member for Mississauga South and the participation of other parliamentarians in making significant changes to the bill despite its having passed second reading is a perfect example of this commitment put into action.
Officials from the departments of health and justice have explained that the bill was a consolidation of existing legislation and that the changes it contained were required to fulfil the international agreements we had signed. They emphasized that our international partners were exerting pressure on us to pass this legislation.
As the subcommittee analyzed the bill more closely and listened to the arguments of witnesses a variety of issues began to emerge. Although there was not a single unanimous view, nonetheless members of each of the three parties expressed similar concerns about the substance of the bill, as did other parliamentarians including me.
As many Liberals see it, Canada's approach to illegal drugs has required adjustment for some time. At different times the Liberal Party of Canada has in non-binding party resolutions advocated certain fundamental changes to our drug policies. To simply consolidate and thereby reaffirm existing approaches to drugs would be to miss an important opportunity to effect modern rational policies on drugs.
What were the concerns some had with the original Bill C-7? Bill C-7 is a complex piece of legislation. In my view the following were among the most important concerns. First, the bill lacked provisions for rehabilitation and treatment options for sentencing as an alternative to incarceration or fines. Second, the bill categorized illicit substances according to outdated schedules.
Third, the bill reaffirmed lengthy maximum prison terms and increased the fines for the simple possession of cannabis in contrast to current court practices and evolved societal attitudes.
Fourth, Bill C-7 included a deeming provision for illicit substances which seemed to us to contradict the fundamental legal principle that conduct subject to criminal sanction should be specified clearly in acts.
Let us deal with these concerns. First, the bill lacked provisions for rehabilitation and treatment options for sentencing as an alternative to incarceration and fines. Many members felt Bill C-7, drafted under the lead of the Department of Health, did not squarely address the public health dimensions of the illicit drug problem. Among experts in public health and addiction research, the consensus has emerged in recent years which emphasizes a strategy called harm reduction. It emphasizes the broader reduction of harms to society caused by illegal drug use, as well as by inappropriate institutional responses to drug problems.
As the experts know, a harm reduction approach seeks to reduce the harm caused by those who have a problem with substance abuse, including harm done to themselves, to their families and to other persons. It evaluates strategies for dealing with illicit substances in part by situating them within the context of substance abuse generally, including that of alcohol and tobacco. A less ideological perspective on the problem begins with honest epidemiological comparisons to strategies for dealing with such legal and potentially very dangerous substances.
Harm reduction initiatives include needle exchange programs, methadone treatment, counselling and rehabilitation efforts. Education efforts which stress the health risks associated with legal and illegal drug use are also important in the prevention of drug dependencies or addictions.
I contrast this approach with what I would call prohibitionism. One treats the consumption of drugs as a moral evil where criminal sanction is seen as the only appropriate response. Rather than recognizing the users of illicit substances as endangering their health and taking appropriate steps to help them, the prohibitionist perspective would treat them solely as criminals who require the
threat of criminal penalties and a criminal record to deter them from such behaviour.
Were this an effective approach, the United States with its heavy emphasis on interdiction and punishment would be nearly drug free by now. As we know, the number of prisoners in jail for drug offences in that country continues to grow with little sign of any stemming of the insidious drug trade or the use of illegal drugs.
Despite being part of Canada's drug strategy which emphasizes harm reduction as its primary goal, Bill C-7 in its original form did not mention or encourage judges to consider rehabilitation or treatment as alternatives to fines or incarceration for those convicted of possession of illicit substances. This was a concern now remedied.
Criminal sanctions should not be our only tool for dealing with illicit drugs or for changing the habits of persons who are addicted or at risk of drug addiction. Prohibitionism toward drug users on its own arguably inflicts greater harms on individuals and families than the harms it purports to prevent. We should also bear in mind the far greater number of deaths and amounts of disease associated each year with the use of such legal drugs as tobacco and alcohol. In my opinion the sums and energies we expend in fighting the use of illicit drugs should be allocated with due regard for their overall impact on population health.
Wisely and responsibly, the government has amended Bill C-7 to include a clause that addresses rehabilitation. Clause 11(1) declares: "The fundamental purpose of any sentence for an offence arising under part I is to contribute to respect for law and the maintenance of a just, peaceful and safe society, while encouraging rehabilitation and treatment in appropriate circumstances of offenders and acknowledging the harm done to victims and to the community".
The second concern I raised was that the bill categorized illicit substances according to outdated schedules. No one would dispute our drug policy must be reflective of current scientific knowledge. The parliamentary committee repeatedly stressed the schedules proposed in Bill C-7 are outdated. This was put forward by witnesses. While they are housed in the 1971 UN convention, their arrangement derives from public policies of the 1920s when policy makers knew relatively little science about the nature, the effects and the potential for societal harm posed by these drugs.
The most serious example of the lack of pharmacology reflected in the schedules was the placement of cannabis in the schedule I of the UN convention. Schedule I is supposed to be reserved for the most socially harmful drugs such as morphine, heroin and opium.
Heavy regular use of cannabis can certainly sap motivation and affect short term memory. Many will contend that while it may be carcinogenic, the risks of the light use of cannabis do not appear to be significantly worse than those associated with moderate use of legal substances like alcohol. While we have heard calls from some for decriminalization, in my opinion dependency on marijuana should be strongly discouraged. Nonetheless, the drug schedules used in Canada should reflect the best scientific knowledge we possess. We should not be obligated to accept outdated schedules.
In response to the concerns raised, the bill has been amended to incorporate an additional schedule, I(i), which deals exclusively with cannabis and its derivatives. Read together with the new penalty provisions which I shall discuss next, this amendment takes cannabis out of the company of far more deleterious drugs like heroin and cocaine while keeping it within the realm of the Criminal Code. In a minute I will also discuss the international schedules and our response to that issue.
The third concern with the original Bill C-7 was it reaffirmed maximum prison terms and increased the fines for the simple possession of cannabis, in contrast to current court practices and involved societal attitudes.
Should pot smokers have the threat of a lengthy jail term hanging over their heads? Is this the best way to discourage use? Does it make Canada safer? Does it make it healthier?
As originally drafted, Bill C-7 retained a maximum penalty of seven years for simple possession of cannabis. It doubled the fine for a first offence and more than doubled it for a second offence. These maximum penalties contrasted with what is generally now meted out by Canadian courts for a first time offence, which is usually a small fine and sometimes an absolute discharge.
It is estimated that we charge over 40,000 people a year with simple possession of cannabis, a costly burden on the court and the police systems. This represents approximately 3 per cent of the estimated over one million regular cannabis users in Canada.
Further, while 3 per cent of those charged will face incarceration, over half a million Canadians have criminal records because of cannabis convictions. These people can apply for pardons in due course, since the convictions that they have can be a serious hindrance for employability and for travel. Penalties tend to vary with different police officers, the judges, the regions of the country and the socioeconomic status of the accused. Would that it were not so, but it is true.
In many communities across Canada, the courts, the legal profession, the police on the beat and the average person do not appear to view cannabis possession as meriting the severe penalties set out for it in existing law. Reaffirming these penalties would effectively express our legislator's faith in the existing penalty structure. What signals should such reaffirmations send to our courts? When law lags behind court practices and societal attitudes
and such laws come up for review, the laws must be adjusted, not reaffirmed.
Penalties for offences under the act should be proportionate to the social and personal harm they entail. In keeping with this principle, the bill has been amended to incorporate a new schedule which establishes threshold amounts of cannabis for the offence of simple possession. Persons charged with possession of lesser amounts will be subject only to summary conviction proceedings, with a correspondingly lower range of penalties. This is still a criminal conviction and I stress this. However, in those cases involving the lesser amounts with simple possession charges, there will not be fingerprinting, there will not be photography or entering into a CPIC system for tracing purposes.
By reducing penalties and recommending treatment and rehabilitation alternatives in Bill C-7, we send a clear signal to the courts encouraging them to pursue the available harm reduction avenues.
The fourth concern I originally mentioned, that the bill as originally drafted included a deeming provision for illicit substances which appears to contradict the fundamental legal principle that conduct subject to criminal sanction should be specified clearly in acts.
The deeming provision in Bill C-7 allowed new, previously unscheduled substances to be deemed by regulators to belong to a particular schedule and the attached penalty provisions to come into force at that point. The bill would have extended a definition of controlled substances and their analogues beyond drugs cited in the schedules, to such drugs as were deemed by regulators to have an effect substantially similar to, or greater than, schedule substances.
Using this provision, the government would thus have been able to adopt regulations to control, govern and limit the use of as yet undesignated substances. This would be a significant departure from current provisions of the Narcotic Control Act and the Food and Drugs Act, the offences and associated punishments set out in these acts would apply only to such drugs as are specifically cited in the attached schedules. The purpose of this provision would be to allow regulators to respond quickly to the introduction of new so-called look alike drugs on our streets.
While this purpose is laudable, it has yet to be shown that this problem of undesignated drugs is out of control and in guarding against it, we must be careful not to trample on other fundamental legal principles. Citizens must know what the law is beforehand, so that they can govern their behaviour accordingly. If something is illegal, then there must be a law saying so unambiguously. To declare x a crime after the fact is unacceptable.
Further, many consumers and vendors of natural health remedies expressed concern that this provision could allow regulators to declare these products included in restricted or banned schedules. This provision, in fact, only dealt with parts III and IV of the Food and Drugs Act and herbs have historically been covered by parts I and II. Accordingly, this provision has been deleted now as the amended act Bill C-7 by the government.
I have dwelt at some length on the substantial improvements that members were able to bring to this bill after second reading.
Most of my remarks have concerned the demand side of the drug equation. There is also the supply side to consider. Bill C-7 introduces three important measures to combat drug trafficking. First, it includes a provision whereby judges are required to take aggravating factors into account when sentencing. Written reasons will now be required of a judge who fails to impose a prison term in the presence of any one of a list of aggravating factors.
The court will be required to regard as aggravating factors: first, use of a weapon or use of threat of violence; second, trafficking on school grounds or to a minor or in or near public places frequented by minors; third, any previous convictions of a drug offence and fourth, using the services of a minor in the perpetration of a designated substance offence. It is anticipated and hoped these provisions will deter drug dealers from using weapons, threatening violence, selling to young people or recruiting their services.
Second, schedule V in Bill C-7 introduces the notion of precursor substances, adding them to the list of controlled substances. This innovation keeps us in line with our international obligations under the single convention on narcotic drugs, 1961 and the 1988 Vienna convention.
Precursors do not by themselves produce any psychotropics or psychoactive effect but can be converted or used to produce designer drugs, look alike drugs or scheduled substances. Regulations enacted to control the import and export of precursors would attempt thereby to thwart the production of psychoactive substances in Canada and elsewhere. Canada has become a conduit for these and we owe it to our international partners to put a stop to this.
Finally, Bill C-7 allows police to use reverse sting measures, that is selling quantities of drugs to dealers for the sake of making arrests. Under the regulations of the Narcotic Control Act police officers have been permitted to possess drugs as part of their undercover work but without legislative authority to sell. Quite reasonably they wish to have clarified that they are so permitted by including a clause exempting them from the criminal provisions of the new act. That has been done.
Legislation is an evolutionary process as it should be. I believe that Bill C-7, as amended, has come a long way. The subcommittee has also recommended that a comprehensive drug policy review be undertaken by a parliamentary committee. Further, there has also been a recommendation that a task force of experts be established to examine and redefine the criteria for the the scheduling of drugs. Thus Canada could be a leading force in the modernization of international drug scheduling.
Although I admit to not being an expert in these matters, I do know that it is the time to look forward to a drug policy appropriate to the 21st century, one that incorporates criminal law, enforcement, public health and modern societal attitudes.
I publicly commend our ministers, the subcommittee members and our colleagues in the House of all parties in the development of the bill as deliberated today and I will support it.