Mr. Speaker, I rise to speak to Bill C-32.
Drug users are frequently involved in fatal accidents, and that is a fact. Studies estimate that 3.4% of motor vehicle accident fatalities and 1.7% of injuries are the result of drug impairment. These estimated proportions more than double when dealing with impairment by a combination of alcohol and drugs. One study has indicated that more than 30% of fatal accidents in Quebec involved drugs, while another shows that 20% of fatal accidents in British Columbia involved drugs or a combination of alcohol and drugs.
A significant proportion of Canadians have also admitted to driving within a few hours of consuming drugs. Surveys have shown that 48% of Canadian drivers have taken the wheel within two hours of using cannabis, while close to 20% have taken the wheel within two hours of taking a potentially impairing drug, whether over the counter, prescription or illegal.
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health released a study that found that 20% of Ontario high school students admitted to driving a vehicle within one hour of using cannabis at least once within the preceding year. In 2002 the Nova Scotia Student Drug Use Survey also indicated about 26% of students, with a driver's licence, had driven within one hour of using cannabis over the previous year.
There is some evidence of a problem and Parliament has the responsibility to respond in an appropriate fashion when issues affect the health and well-being of the people of the country.
When I became a member of Parliament in 1993, the subject area related to drugs and alcohol played a fairly big role in my career as a parliamentarian. In fact, before I even sat one day in the House, after being elected, I did some work, knowing that the elected government had committed to a national forum on health to deal with health issues of Canadians, the number one priority issue for Canadians.
I had a great interest in being involved in that because I had spent about nine years on the board of the Mississauga Hospital, learning about our health care system, how it worked and how it affected people in the corridors of a hospital. I attained a great deal of respect for the doctors and nurses who serviced Canadians in their times of need and I wanted to be part of it.
Looking at some of the work that Parliament had done on the health files prior to my being elected, I stumbled across a report done by a subcommittee of the Standing Committee on Health and Welfare, Social Affairs, Seniors and the Status of Women entitled, “Foetal Alcohol Syndrome: A Preventable Tragedy”. I had no idea what fetal alcohol syndrome was, so I read the report. I discovered that the consumption of alcohol during pregnancy was the leading known cause of mental retardation in Canada. I saw statistics about the implications of the misuse of alcohol to impaired driving, which is an issue we are talking about today. I saw the health impacts on people, early morbidity, people dying much sooner than their expected lifespan.
It was clear to me that I wanted to know more about this. I wondered how someone who was educated, who had three children and who engaged in the community on a hospital board would not know about fetal alcohol syndrome. I wanted to get involved because I felt that if I did not know, then there probably were a lot of other Canadians who also did not know.
The issue of alcohol has been a very big item in my career and I have raised it many times. Yesterday, in reference to a report that I had encouraged from the Standing Committee on Health, the Minister of Health issued a response to it. It states that we spend a lot of time going in circles on the subject matter of alcohol and its implications not only to unborn children when consumed during pregnancy, but also the impairment issue when we operate machinery or drive automobiles.
That report has been issued by the government. I have not reviewed it as thoroughly as I would like, but it is about time that Canada took a lead role in mitigating the impact of alcohol, the poison ethanol, which is in beverage alcohol and many affects that it has on Canadians.
There is another area in which I have some relevant experience. In the first session of the 35th Parliament, as a member of the health committee I was asked to chair a subcommittee on Bill C-7, the controlled drugs and substances act, the act which Bill C-32 is proposing to amend. At that time, about a decade ago, there was a great deal of discussion about marijuana and its implications. Grow houses were not the rampant problem that they are today. Something has happened and I know what it is.
The potency of this drug, cannabis sativa, and there are two other types in its natural form, the THC content, tetrahydrocannabinol content, can be changed in the plant so that it has a higher potency. B.C. bud is one of the most sought after marijuanas because it has the highest THC content. It gives the highest buzz. It has the highest ability to impair one's ability.
Some of the questions that have been asked around here about what kind of technology there is to deal with this are really important ones. If we detect drugs in a person's system and charge the person for being impaired, how do we know that the drug is affecting the person's ability to do what the person is supposed to do? It is a very complicated issue.
When I chaired the subcommittee dealing with Bill C-7 I can recall the government's position was that there was no intention of decriminalizing marijuana. That debate continues. Even in the last couple of years that issue continues to be floated around by people.
We have to understand that the potency of any drug can be altered by those who produce or manufacture it. We have to keep ahead of that, particularly when dealing with things like designer drugs. Designer drugs are not legal drugs and they cannot be purchased over the counter, but boy can they be cranked out. We have seen the implications on our young people. It causes a big problem. This is something I feel very strongly about.
In the Bill C-7 subcommittee we also talked about harm reduction strategy. Poor people who use drugs get the drugs off the street and sometimes they get a bad batch. The thinking back then was that the government should get involved in regulating the production and distribution of safe drugs so fewer drug users would be hurt by a bad batch of drugs. The thinking back then was that we had to protect people who were breaking the law rather than find a balance. I found that a difficult bill to deal with and the changes that were proposed at the time.
It is interesting to note that this has come full circle. We are now back to the implications of drug impairment on driving. I will tell the House why this is important.
I started off my speech by reading some statistics into the record and it looks like there is a problem. Whatever has been measured and reported in some of the studies about the problems of drinking and driving or consuming drugs and driving is a lot smaller than the facts. The reason is that the police and people in the hospitals who are charged with determining the cause of death and cause of injury normally report that trauma is the cause of death of someone who has been killed by a drunk driver, who has been squished against a wall somewhere. In fact, the cause of death of that human being was an idiot drunk driver who lost control of his vehicle and killed somebody. Those are some of the issues. The reporting mechanisms that have been relied upon to provide legislators with the information they need to make good laws and wise decisions are impaired.
The police often do not take breathalyzer tests of people who were in accidents. They spend more of their time cleaning up the site to get the traffic going again and to make sure that the injured parties get into an ambulance and get taken away. It is not the job of the hospital officials. There is no coordination.
I am very concerned about the issue of impaired driving and the use of machinery and equipment when one is impaired, whether it be by alcohol or any other substance, illegal or legally prescribed, I do not care. The fact is there are substances that people can and do take that impair their ability and impact the health and well-being of ordinary Canadians.
Bill C-32 amends the Criminal Code. What is the current law? Currently section 253(a) of the Criminal Code makes it an offence to drive while one's ability to operate a vehicle is impaired by alcohol or a drug or a combination of alcohol and a drug.
While section 253(b) contains the further offence of driving while one's blood alcohol level is over the limit, no similar drug limit offence exists. This is a problem. We just do not know yet, and if one can play around with marijuana, its potency and so on, one is not sure. Consuming two joints with a low THC level could be nothing compared to consuming one joint with B.C. bud in it or something like that.
This is going to be more complicated than I think people have indicated. I want the bill to go to committee. I want the expert witnesses who come to committee to make absolutely sure that we are on the right track and that we are not making this a little more complicated and not charter proof. The charter proof issue is really important.
Although drug impaired driving is a criminal offence, police have few legally designated means of controlling that offence. They currently rely on non-quantifiable symptoms of drug impairment, such as erratic driving behaviour or the testimony of some witnesses. Drug tests are admissible as evidence in court, but only if the driver participates voluntarily. Some changes will be necessary to the current law in order to make this bill effective. I think the intent is very good. I am not yet convinced whether or not we have the means, the tools and the cooperation. It is going to take a great deal of work to make this work.
Yes, it is a challenge and it is a challenge that Parliament should take up. I am very much looking forward to the justice committee dealing with this but I also I have a problem there. I know that the justice committee is swamped with at least 8 or 10 bills. It is dealing with a whole series of bills, many of which could have been included in one omnibus bill to amend the Criminal Code for a number of offences. We could have had the same witnesses that we are having bill after bill after bill. We could have had all of them there to deal with the same items. Some of the bills are no brainers. They have the support of virtually everyone in the House. They should be passed but they have to go through the process.
We should be expediting these things. I do not know why the then justice minister had to come in with a series of bills other than for political or partisan reasons to say look at all the things the government is doing.
When we are tinkering around with the Criminal Code, let us not take up the House's time. Let us not take up the justice committee's time. Let it do its job. Let us be efficient in proposing and addressing legislation. It is more a matter of let us work smart rather than work hard. I do not think we have been working smart.
This bill is going to take some work. I do not know whether or not we are going to get the time at the justice committee with all the other obligations it has and I do not know what else is coming. For very important bills we are going to have to start dealing with legislative committees, committees that are able to work smartly on legislation and address some of the key problems, particularly as they might touch on charter issues, jurisdictional responsibilities, court challenges, the application of penalties, or whatever it might be. It is an important bill that really has to get done.
I want to quickly refer to a study which I thought was really good. The Senate did a study about a Canadian public policy on cannabis.
This issue is one which most members who have spoken to this bill and talked about driving while impaired, have talked about using marijuana and whether or not it has some impairment ability. Yes, we do know it can impair one's ability, as any drug can.
The Senate often does things that the House of Commons committees do not do when they do studies. The Senate does a lot more ad hoc studies, not in response to legislation, but rather on important issues of the day to provide a comprehensive review and summary of the state of the facts on matters which are going to affect us down the road.
This should be very helpful to the committee. I want to read into the record what the senators articulated as a public policy regime that they proposed for expressing the fundamental premise underlying their report. This is good. It is like having a mission statement to give us a road map as to where we are going with this, what is our thinking based on. It states:
In a free and democratic society, which recognizes fundamentally but not exclusively the rule of law as the source of normative rules and in which government must promote autonomy as far as possible and therefore make only sparing use of the instruments of constraint, public policy on psychoactive substances must be structured around guiding principles respecting the life, health, security and rights and freedoms that the individuals, who, naturally and legitimately, seek their own well-being and development and can recognize the presence, difference and equality of others.
It takes a little time; it has to be read two or three times, but it basically says balance. We have objectives and we have individual rights and freedoms. We have to be careful. The balance has to be right. We cannot be draconian in measures just because we know we can slap something down. It is important to understand that sometimes it is necessary to provide, whether it be the policing authorities or the courts, the tools to deal with certain issues where clearly we have not been able to get the job done.
I referred to the term tetrahydrocannabinol which is the most active component of cannabis. It is what gives the so-called buzz. I have never tried the stuff myself, never will, but I am told it is. There is a lovely glossary in the report. It says that THC is highly fat soluble, has a lengthy half life, its psychoactive effects are modulated by other active components in cannabis. In its natural state cannabis contains between .5% to 5% THC. Sophisticated cultivation methods and plant selection, especially female plants, lead to higher THC levels of concentration.
There is no question about it. As a matter of fact, when I was in university way back when, and it was probably around 1970 when I got out of there, one could smoke a field of marijuana and not get a buzz because it was so weak. It is about ten times stronger because in its natural state it is only .5% THC content.