Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House today to debate the final stage of Bill C-15, which I am sorry we are doing. I am very disappointed that the Liberal members moved a motion to prevent any further extension of the debate. They have obviously done that very consciously because they, like the Conservatives, want to see this bill go through. They do not want to deal with any of the controversy around this bill, so that is very disappointing. Nevertheless here we are at third reading and I do have some comments to make about the bill, why it is seriously flawed and why we are opposing it.
I want to begin by saying that, as the Conservative member mentioned, I represent a riding, Vancouver East, where we have had a very serious drug problem. When I first was elected in 1997, I think the first issue I dealt with was that so many people were dying from overdoses that were entirely preventable.
The rate was alarming. It was higher than heart attacks, strokes, cancer or accidental deaths. It was from drug use and it was because people were buying substances on the black market, such as heroin, crack and various cocktails, and people did not know what they were taking. Sometimes something would hit the streets and it would be deadly, and we would have seven people dying over several days. It was one of the first issues I dealt with and it became literally a life and death issue that I felt compelled, as a newly elected member of Parliament, to deal with.
When I look back 12 years ago, at that time it would have been very easy to take this traditional response to substance use problems in our society, to say that we have to crack down, we have to get tougher and we have to have tougher laws. As I began talking with people in my own community, when I began speaking with doctors and health experts, when I began talking with drug users themselves who rarely get heard because they are very vilified and demonized in our society, I began to realize that the whole regime of our drug laws, the enforcement and the way it happens, is actually, in many cases, more harmful than the drugs themselves.
Criminalizing drug users continually and pushing people to the margins of society where they can get very little help and where they are outside the health care system was actually creating a worse situation in terms of the individual health of drug users, where we had a skyrocketing rate of HIV, AIDS and hepatitis C. It was the worst in the western world. It was an epidemic in the downtown east side, but it was also affecting the whole community in terms of crime and a lack of feeling safe. It really affected the overall health of the community.
It was at that point that I began to realize that the approach we had traditionally taken in Canada, which was very similar to that in the United States, was a failure. Many of us began to look further, to what was happening in Europe, to see where very different strategies had been tried in dealing with substance use, where there were, for example, safe injections sites and a much broader continuum of dealing with drug use as a health issue and focusing on that. There was enforcement as well, but it was primarily focused on it being a health issue.
Europe had, for example, a heroin medication program for chronic users, where instead of people having to buy their heroin on the black market, they could actually get a prescription and go through rehabilitation. There are tons of studies on this to show that what happened in Europe over many years had a very different impact than what was happening in the United States and Canada.
I became very convinced that the so-called war on drugs and emphasizing a law enforcement approach was really a very failed strategy. As the member for Hochelaga pointed out, this was very much reinforced by the Auditor General's report in 1998 or 1999, which showed that 90% of federal costs on drug policy were actually spent on enforcement, to no effect. She questioned what the value was and what kind of rationale was behind these policies.
I thought for a while that we were making progress in this Parliament when we adopted the four-pillar approach. It began in Vancouver, led by big city mayors. It began with the former mayor of Vancouver, Philip Owen.
It was continued by the successive mayor, Larry Campbell. It was a municipal grassroots approach. It began in the local community because we needed a different approach to drug policies in this country. So the four-pillar approach, based on prevention, treatment, harm reduction and enforcement, was adopted, and it was beginning to move across the country.
I thought we really were beginning to make some progress and people were beginning to want to have an honest debate about drug policies and recognize that prohibition itself is an issue that we need to examine and take on, and that prohibition, just as we saw in the 1930s with alcohol, where it fueled organized crime, where it fueled increased violence that had an impact on innocent civilians, is exactly what we are seeing today in these gang wars that are taking place in Vancouver.
Then a Conservative government was elected and we embarked on this mad journey of a crime agenda that is so closely associated with what we have seen in the United States that I find it frightening. To me, it is not based on any sound public policy analysis. It is not based on any evidence. It is based on some sort of ideology and plays on people's fear, because there is fear about drug use.
All of us as parents worry about what happens to our kids when they are in school and whether they are being lured by dealers. These are all fears that we have about safety in our community, but what I find really difficult, because it is so politicized now and so politically motivated, is to lure people with the idea that by bringing in tougher and tougher laws that we are somehow solving the problem.
That is the problem with the bill. It is based on the premise that mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes will improve the situation that we see in our local communities, that it will help our kids, that it will help drug users, that it will help deal with big kingpins, the big traffickers, the dealers that people worry about.
I believe we have a responsibility as members of Parliament to actually examine that question and to ask ourselves, is that the right direction? Is that the right route to take?
I began with the Minister of Justice and asked him to please show us the evidence that mandatory minimums work, because everything I had seen coming out of the United States was telling us that they do not work. In fact, many of the states are now repealing, have repealed or are about to repeal their mandatory minimums.
So I thought, if we have a Conservative government that wants to take us down this road, at least let us see the evidence that the government has that it will work. Let us see the evidence and the estimates of what it would cost the judicial system. How many more people would it put in jail? What would be the cost to the provincial and territorial system?
However, the minister could not answer that. All he could say was that Canadians had told him that they wanted this to happen.
I felt very dissatisfied by that answer. I thought it was a very pathetic answer, and it really exposed the lack of analysis and substance that brought this bill forward.
In committee, we heard from some pretty remarkable witnesses. We heard from 16 witnesses, 13 of whom were strongly opposed to the bill and to mandatory minimums. In fact, the executive director of the John Howard Society forwarded the committee information about 35 studies, and he actually produced 17 of them, that showed that mandatory minimum sentences do not work in this area. We had overwhelming evidence showing that this is a very failed approach.
I feel that we are at a point now where it is just pretty awful that the bill will go through. I have been listening to the Liberal members, scratching my head and wondering, what on earth are they thinking? Why are they trying to fool us? Why are they trying to fool the Canadian public that by somehow lining up with the Conservatives on the bill they are doing the right thing?
I know there are individual members there who probably do not agree with this bill. We just heard from the member for Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca who did introduce a bill on decriminalization of marijuana, which I very much support.
The bill is going in the complete opposite direction. I do not know how the member, or other members who I know have a similar view can, in any good conscience, can support this.
We know from the experience in the United States, contrary to what the Conservatives tell us, the bill is not levelled at the big kingpins. It is levelled at the low level dealers. It is levelled at the users who also deal because that is part of the cycle.
The idea that minimum sentences would be a deterrence to these folks is completely false. We have so much evidence to show that they are no deterrence at all. All minimum sentences will do is put more people in jail, people who already deal with substance use issues and need medical and social support, treatment and rehabilitation, and good housing.
We have to figure out why people become addicted and how to help them out of that. The government cannot just throw out a bill and give a six month sentence to one person and a three year sentence to another. People will be thrown into a system and will come out even worse.
The Canadian HIV-AIDS legal network recently produced a report about the lack of accessibility to harm reduction practices in our prison system, whether it is needle exchange or health support, which is truly shocking. People are being put into an environment and coming out much worse than when they went in.
The bill is completely harmful in its consequences. I really believe that it should be defeated, and that is why, from day one, the NDP made it clear that we thought it should be defeated.
I want to deal with some of the issues that have been brought forward.
There has been a suggestion in the debate that if we do not support the bill, there will not be any enforcement. It has been suggested that the bill is about bringing in an enforcement regime and that what we have is not working. There is no evidence of that.
Bill C-15 proposes to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. In the current act, trafficking, as I pointed out earlier, is already subject to life imprisonment, so is importing and exporting and production for the purposes of trafficking.
There is already a whole set of aggravating circumstances contained in the CDSA similar to Bill C-15. The courts already have the legal tools to use aggravating circumstances, whether it is carried use, or threaten to use a weapon, or the use of violence, or being near a school ground, or a previous conviction or the use of the services of a person under the age of 18 years to commit or involve such a person in the commission of a designated substance offence. These already exist in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
I come back to the fundamental question that has to be answered by the government. Why are the Conservatives introducing a regime of mandatory minimums when there is no evidence showing that they will work? In fact to the contrary, this will only make it worse.
The Conservative member for Edmonton—St. Albert said in committee, after we had heard from the John Howard Society and the Civil Liberties Association:
I suppose I will accept the representation made from the John Howard Society and the Civil Liberties Association that this bill is targeted to the so-called low-level distributor or low-level dealer. You may be correct that it may not be as effective as we would like in going after the kingpins. I may accept that.
Conservative members know what the bill is about. Even though they say publicly that this legislation goes after the big guys, that it will make us all safe, because the bill is so broad and because it will capture so many people, they know it will be low level distributors, many of whom are also users, who will be caught.
I would argue that is why the Conservatives included a small aspect in the bill around drug treatment courts. They want to give people the idea that at least there is some alternative regime to allow people to go through a drug treatment court.
The big kingpins, the big drug dealers are not going through drug treatment courts. They are the ones who negotiate their way out of anything. They are the ones who have the resources to do that. The people who go to the drug treatment courts are the poorest of the poor. They are the people who are visible on the street. This is very much a class issue as well.
Drug use exists at every level of society, whether it is lawyers or professionals, but the visibility of what we see is on the street. That is where the enforcement is being levelled and that is where people are being sent into these drug treatment courts.
The evidence of the drug treatment courts is very mixed. I have serious problems with them. If we believe people should get help, why would we wait until they are convicted and then ask them if they would like get some treatment? Part of treatment is to make an early intervention. If we wait until people are all the way through the justice system and then say that we will help them is a completely ridiculous way to organize a continuum of support and help required for people who face addiction issues.
The Liberals are very much hanging their hat on the drug treatment courts, saying that they are going to go after the drug treatment courts, that we need more of them. However, they are very controversial as to whether they are working.
I would also like to read into the record what the Minister of Public Safety said when he appeared before the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security back in April of this year. He said:
Why is it that we're having to convert our prison system into a mental health hospital system? Why is it that people are ending up in prisons who shouldn't be? The fundamental problem is this. Why are we not getting adequate health care to individuals? Why, when they have their first couple of encounters with the courts, do they still not get adequate health care?
Understanding how you get there is important, because by the time someone has had serious enough problems that they're in the federal penitentiary system, it's pretty hard to put the puzzle back together again. What we want to do is find ways to deal with it well before that happens, and that's better for society. It's better for the individuals involved; it's better for the taxpayers; it's better for our prison system....
There are so many contradictions. On the one hand, the minister himself is questioning why so many people are being sent into incarceration who really should not be there. On the other hand, we have this draconian bill.
I did call it radical. I believe mandatory minimum sentences are a radical approach that has been shown not to work. We will be sending more and more people into the justice system where they are not going to get the help they need and they are not even going to get the help they need from the drug treatment courts.
The bill will go through. I am very glad that at least the NDP was able to get through a couple of amendments, one of which was to have a review of the bill within two years. I hope there will be enough of us around, and I am sure there will be a strong NDP contingent here, to ensure the bill is reviewed. We will do it very objectively, and as the member for Windsor—Tecumseh says, if necessary, have it repealed. That is very important. We were glad we were able to get through one amendment to provide an exemption for one to five plants.
At the end of the day, this is probably the worst crime bill the Conservatives have brought forward. It has no evidence to support it. It is purely driven by a political agenda. It is going to hurt people. It is going to send more people into our prison system. It is not going to solve our substance use issues in local communities or nationally. It is going to drive us down the road where the U.S. went, which has been the most colossal failure that we could imagine, financially, politically and in terms of its justice system.
That is where we are headed with the bill. It is a huge mistake. I am very glad the NDP is voting against it. I appreciate that the Bloc is voting against it also, but I wish the other parties would too.