Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to Bill C-15, An Act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and to make related and consequential amendments to other Acts.
This bill would amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to provide for minimum penalties for serious drug offences, to increase the maximum penalty for cannabis or marijuana production, to reschedule certain substances from schedule 3 of that act to schedule 1, and to make consequential amendments to other acts.
I spoke to this bill at second reading and I spoke against it. I spoke against it because generally I do not believe that mandatory minimums are an effective legislative policy and I certainly cannot support mandatory minimums in the context of drug laws.
Why is that? We have had many studies and reports that show that mandatory minimums have a negligible impact on crime control. For example, I will quote from one of the reports from our own Department of Justice in 2002. It states:
Harsh mandatory minimum sentences do not appear to influence drug consumption or drug-related crime in any measurable way.
Another report in 2005 from our own Department of Justice stated:
There is some indication that minimum sentences are not an effective sentencing tool....
When this bill was at committee, the John Howard Society provided summaries from 17 studies from the U.S. and the U.K. on mandatory minimums, lengthy sentence terms and recidivism. They found that the longer prison terms do not reduce recidivism. The detailed analysis of the United States Sentencing Commission found that mandatory minimums went after the low-level criminals and that they were ineffective at deterring crime.
In 1987, the Canadian Sentencing Commission noted that since 1952, all Canadian commissions that addressed the role of mandatory minimum penalties have recommended that they be abolished. Here we are in 2009 and we are advocating for mandatory minimums.
The Canadian Sentencing Commission also found that existing mandatory minimum penalties, with the exception of those for murder and high treason, serve no purpose that can compensate for the disadvantages resulting from their continued existence but we still have politicians promoting mandatory minimums as an effective means of fighting crime.
Let us unpack what politicians are doing. We are saying that we will punish people for committing a crime and punish them harshly, but punishment comes after the fact. I will quote the author, Michael Tonry, in an article he wrote entitled “Mandatory Penalties”, where he gives the reason that legislatures and politicians continue to enact mandatory minimums. He says that “most elected officials who support such laws are only secondarily interested in their effects. Officials' primary interests are rhetorical and symbolic. Calling and voting for mandatory penalties is demonstrating that officials are tough on crime. If the laws works, all the better, but that's hardly crucial. In a time of heightened public anxiety about crime and social unrest, being on the right side of the crime issue is much more important politically than making sound and sensible public policy choices”.
There we have it. It seems that the emperor has no clothes. I want to repeat: “Public anxiety about crime and social unrest...is much more important politically than making sound and sensible public policy choices”. That is what we have here today.
I stood up against this bill at second reading but it did pass and it went to committee. At committee, we heard from many knowledgeable expert witnesses. We heard from front line workers, legal scholars and policy experts. Sixteen witnesses appeared and, of the 16, 13 provided evidence and studies showing that mandatory minimums are costly failures that target low-level dealers. This is the issue, because the government is trying to tell us that this bill will stop drug trafficking. We are trying to get the kingpins but the evidence shows that it targets low-level dealers, users and a disproportionate number of visible minorities and poor people. As I stated earlier, our own justice department has two reports clearly stating that mandatory minimums are not effective for drug crimes.
When the minister was asked if he could produce a report showing that mandatory minimums work, he could not, but he did insist that this was what Canadians wanted.
Three of the 16 witnesses did support mandatory minimums. What did they say? Not one of the three could produce evidence showing that mandatory minimums actually work to reduce drug use, drug crimes, organized crime or gang violence. We have nothing except three witnesses who say that they support this. We have no evidence.
My colleagues have spoken to the known results of mandatory minimum sentences: increased pressure on the criminal justice system; and substantial increased costs to the provincial prison and court systems. The bill would capture the low-level dealers, not the kingpins, as it is intended. It also would not address the real issue of addiction that we know is best combated by a four pillar approach: enforcement, treatment, harm reduction and prevention, with each one being equal.
I would like to touch on an issue that is not raised in this hon. House often enough, and that is the issue of race and class. Representatives from the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, also known as VANDU, testified that drug prohibition serves to further marginalize people because in Canada police profiling centres on poor visible street users and sellers. Canadian jails and prisons house the poor, and our most visible drug users and sellers are aboriginal people and people of colour. They are vastly overrepresented.
VANDU looked to the U.S. where it did implement mandatory minimums in the 1970s and 1980s. In states that legislated these mandatory minimums, by the 1980s it became apparent that poor people and people of colour were most vulnerable to police profiling and imprisonment for drug offences even though drug use rates were no higher than in other sub-groups.
Deborah Small, the executive director of Break the Chains, an organization based out of the U.S., also testified at committee. She said:
I think it's important to note that while all studies show that drug use is pretty much endemic across every population and socio-economic group, the history in the U.S. has been that drug law enforcement has disproportionately impacted poor people.
She went on to say something that is quite damning. She said:
I think it's important to note that one of the effects in New York of enacting the Rockefeller laws is that it forced the state to reallocate money in ways that were really very detrimental. We saw a dollar-for-dollar trade-off in increased expenditures for prisons versus higher education. That sent a message to young people, particularly young people of colour, that the state would actually prefer to invest in their incarceration rather than their education.
How can we stand here and support a bill that we know will not work? We cannot. Therefore, how could we possibly propose an amendment to a bill? We could just throw up our hands and refuse to participate but I do not believe Canadians want that from any of us here. I believe they want us to engage on issues, despite our party lines and our personal ideologies. They send us here to work and sometimes we are working on issues on which we cannot agree.
As parliamentarians, I believe we have an obligation to try to make bills better, even if we strongly disagree with the fundamental premise of the bill.
I would like to point out that we asked many of the witnesses if they would amend the bill if they could and an overwhelmingly majority said that we should scrap it and start over. They actually said “scrap it”.
However, despite that clear message, the NDP has proposed an amendment to strike clause 3 of the bill because it is our duty to try to make this bill better. Perhaps we do give up some of our principles by engaging on the amendments but it is the responsible thing to do.
Clause 3 would create quite a few of the mandatory minimums for various schedule one and schedule two drugs, and striking out the clause would result in striking some of the mandatory minimums that we feel would capture the wrong people: people who are poor, aboriginal Canadians, people from racialized communities and compassion clubs.
I would like to thank my colleague from Vancouver East for moving this amendment and doing her best to try to make a bad bill better.