Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to speak to Bill C-17, an act to amend the Contraventions Act and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. During the time I have been allotted I will take the opportunity to look at how other legislatures in other jurisdictions around the world deal with the possession of cannabis.
Countries around the world treat cannabis possession in different ways. Some countries tolerate forms of possession and consumption, other countries apply administrative sanctions or fines, while others apply penal sanctions. I was quite interested to learn this morning that certain states in the United States, notably Alaska, also treat cannabis possession in different ways, although it does vary from state to state.
However, despite the different legal approaches toward cannabis, a common trend can be seen, particularly in Europe, in the development of alternative measures to criminal prosecution for cases of use and possession of small quantities of cannabis for personal use. Fines, cautions, probation, exemption from punishment and counselling are favoured by many European justice systems.
In Spain, Italy, Portugal, Belgium and Luxembourg, the possession of small amounts of marijuana is not a criminal offence. In the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Denmark, it is still a criminal offence, but one that is never prosecuted.
In France, a directive recommends that judges and government departments use criminal proceedings only as a last resort when people have committed no offence other than the use of illegal drugs.
Britain recently reclassified marijuana from a class B to a class C drug. Possession will therefore be on a parallel with anabolic steroids and growth hormones, which, I should add, are still illegal but not an arrestable offence. However this is coupled with a reserve power of arrest for police officers where it is perceived that the possession of cannabis is a danger to public order or for the protection of children.
Most U.S. states envisage the possibility of imprisonment for the offence of possession of cannabis. However a dozen U.S. states have passed measures decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. These include California, Alaska, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Maine, Nevada, Nebraska, Colorado, Oregon and Mississippi.
Typically in these cases decriminalization means no prison time or criminal record for first time possession of a small amount, approximately 30 grams to 60 grams, for personal consumption. State and local enforcement authorities treat the offence as a minor traffic violation.
Some Australian states and territories have also adopted cannabis decriminalization measures. Some of these measures are similar to what is being contemplated in Bill C-17. I would like to take a few moments to describe the situation in South Australia, the first Australian jurisdiction to adopt cannabis decriminalization measures.
Reform of the cannabis laws in South Australia came with the introduction of the controlled substances amendment act, 1986. The amendment proposed a number of changes to the controlled substances act, 1984, including the insertion of provisions dealing with the expiation of simple cannabis offences. This represented the adoption of a new scheme for the expiation of simple cannabis offences, such as possessing or cultivating small amounts of cannabis for personal use or possessing implements for using cannabis.
The cannabis expiation notice, known as the CEN scheme, came into effect in South Australia in 1987. Under this scheme, adults committing simple cannabis offences could be issued with an expiation notice. Offenders were able to avoid prosecution by paying the specified fee or fees which ranged anywhere from 50 to 150 Australian dollars within 60 days of the issue of the notice. Failure to pay the specified fees within 60 days could lead to prosecution in court and the possibility of a conviction being recorded.
Underlying the scheme was the rationale that a clear distinction should be made between private users of cannabis and those who are involved in dealing, producing or trafficking cannabis. This distinction was emphasized at the introduction of the CEN scheme by the simultaneous introduction of more severe penalties for offences relating inter alia to the production of all drugs of dependence and prohibited substances, including offences relating to larger quantities of cannabis.
The expiation system for minor cannabis offences in South Australia has been the subject of a number of evaluation studies. The impact of the implementation of such a system is therefore best seen there. As I mentioned, the South Australian cannabis expiation notice system began in 1987. One of the main arguments for an expiation system was the reduction of the negative social impact upon convicted minor cannabis offenders. Implicit in this argument was the belief that the potential harms of using cannabis were far outweighed by the harms arising from criminal conviction.
This is a belief also that resides in many Canadians.
The effect of introducing the CEN scheme on levels and trends of cannabis use in Southern Australia has been assessed by a number of surveys on drug use. None of these found an increase in cannabis use there that could be linked to its introduction.
The level of cannabis use over respondents' lifetimes did in fact increase considerably in Southern Australia, from 26% in 1985 to 36% in 1995, but comparable rises were also noted over the same period in states such as Victoria and Tasmania, which took a prohibitionist approach to cannabis.
The number of offences for which cannabis expiation notices were issued in south Australia increased from around 6,000 in 1987-88 to approximately 17,000 in 1993-94 and in subsequent years. This appears to reflect the greater ease with which police can process minor cannabis offences and a shift away from the use of police discretion in giving offenders informal cautions to a process of formally recording all minor offences.
There has been strong support by law enforcement and criminal justice personnel in south Australia for this CEN scheme. The scheme has proven to be relatively cost effective and more cost effective than prohibition would have been. The total costs associated with the CEN scheme in 1995-96, were estimated to be around $1.24 million Australian, while total revenue from fees and fines was estimated to be around $1.68 million Australian. Had a prohibition approach been in place, it is estimated the total cost would have been in excess of $2.01 million Australian, with revenues from fines of around $1 million which is much less than under the CEN scheme.
A report on the CEN scheme noted that it appeared to have numerous benefits for the community, not the least of which was cost saving for the community as a whole, reduced negative social impacts for offenders, greater efficiency and ease in dealing with minor cannabis offences and less negative views of police held by offenders.
The changes made in the cannabis laws in Australia are not technically decriminalization measures as cannabis possession remains a criminal offence in all Australian jurisdictions. What has been changed is a reduction in the penalty for processing small amounts of cannabis for personal use to something less than imprisonment which is what is being proposed in this bill.
I am happy to have the opportunity to say a few words. I would like to conclude my brief remarks by indicating again my support for the proposed legislation and that the bill be referred to the committee prior to second reading.