Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise and contribute to this important debate today.
The government has sought concurrence in a report from October 2014 from the Standing Committee on Health, entitled “Marijuana's Health Risks and Harms”.
I start by noting the title because, as members will note from my remarks to follow, it seems to be the theme of the government to emphasize one part of this complex public policy debate involving marijuana. I was not the deputy chair of the health committee, as I am proud to be now. At the time, it was my colleague from Vancouver East, who has been leading the charge on this debate for the official opposition. I salute her work on the dissenting report. I would like to focus my remarks upon this dissenting report and then talk more generally about the war on drugs and what has led us to this state today.
The report that the government wishes us to concur in is a report that focuses, as its title would suggest, on health risks and harm, which are of course not to be minimized. However, there is another side to the story, and that is why the New Democratic Party produced three recommendations in a dissenting report, the subject of which I would like to address today.
The dissenting report starts by saying what I did: that the current study was unbalanced and designed to focus on the harms of marijuana policy and use in Canada. It then says that significant testimony was dismissed, so the committee was not allowed to hear and address points of view that were different from the government's preconceived notions about marijuana. The dissenting report also says that so-called opinions are what were at stake, rather than evidence-based decisions, which everyone in health policy says is the important way to do business. As a result, there were more witnesses focused on harms and risks than on the other side of the debate.
The point I want to make by way of introduction, which the dissenting report clearly addresses, is that a war on drugs is simply not working. To that end, I would like to refer to last month's issue of The Economist magazine, a very right-wing publication from the U.K., which starts a full discussion on illegal drugs with the following:
In 1971 Richard Nixon fired the first shot in what became known as “the war on drugs” by declaring them “public enemy number one”. In America and the other rich countries that fought by its side, the campaign meant strict laws and harsh sentences for small-time dealers and addicts. ... Billions of wasted dollars and many destroyed lives later, illegal drugs are still available, and the anti-drug warriors are wearying.
The article concludes by saying:
Those preparing to prosecute the next drug war need only look west to see what lies ahead of them: more violence and corruption; more HIV/AIDS; fuller jails—and still the same, unending supply of drugs.
Prohibition, which seems to be the only solution offered by the government, is simply not working. Billions of dollars later, even The Economist magazine has acknowledged that reality. That is why the NDP has sought a more balanced approach, focusing on health promotion, public education, and safety. To that end, three recommendations were made. I would like to address each of them in turn.
The first was that we “pursue a public health approach to marijuana focused on education, and where necessary, treatment and harm reduction.”
Let me be very clear. No one is suggesting that somehow there are no risks or harms associated with this activity, and I hope I am not misunderstood. Particularly for youth, there are issues that need to be addressed, without a doubt. However, to avoid a public health approach and to simply revert to a war-on-drugs approach is not going to work in addressing those harms.
For example, many people came forward—including a constituent of mine, Dr. Philippe Lucas—to advocate a public health approach to the non-medical use of marijuana and other drugs in order to minimize risks and harms. Public awareness campaigns aimed at youth have to focus on accurate information. I am old enough—and I believe you are too, Mr. Speaker—to remember the reefer madness ads that used to be around in my day. It was a joke. They did not work, and they were dismissed by most of the young people whose marijuana consumption the ads were trying to change.
Using a zero tolerance approach has not worked either. Something more nuanced is required. We should listen to the experts like Dr. Lucas and others to that end, so I will come back to that first recommendation, the public health approach.
The second recommendation by the NDP in its dissenting report is to “fund research to examine the potential effectiveness of medical marijuana.”
Medical marijuana has become a large industry. Dr. Perry Kendall, from my part of the world, claims that approximately 50% of the people who use medical marijuana do so to relieve chronic pain. There are a number of illnesses, such as HIV-AIDS and multiple sclerosis, for which it has been proven to be an important contributor to treatment. Indeed, Veterans Affairs Canada pays for the cost of medical marijuana to treat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
However, research on medical marijuana, which could provide benefits in many areas, is limited because of the prohibition approach that the government takes to this issue. We need more research. I am the first to acknowledge that. Funding research on clinical effectiveness and, yes, on risks to youth and others is critically important.
The expansion of the use of medical marijuana in Canada has been absolutely remarkable. In an article in the National Post back in March 2014 that examined the marijuana medical access regulations program, I was shocked to see that in 2001 there were 88 Canadians authorized to possess marijuana under those regulations. As of 2013, that number had gone up to almost 37,000 Canadians. There were 85 marijuana production licences in 2001; in 2013, there were almost 30,000.
We can see that this is an enormous issue and a challenge, but it seems to be beyond dispute that medical marijuana has certain benefits.
The third recommendation that I would like to focus on is the one that is the most salient in this discussion: that we “establish an independent commission with a broad mandate, including safety and public health, to consult Canadians on all aspects of the non-medical use of marijuana and to”—here is the punchline—“provide guidance to Parliament on the institution of an appropriate regulatory regime to govern such use.”
We believe there needs to be this kind of independent commission to hear from people from different communities, including the law enforcement community, the medical community, the legal community, and others, to figure out how we can provide guidance to Parliament on instituting an appropriate regulatory regime, because prohibition has failed. All it has produced is violence, stigma, and control by organized crime. Simply continuing with the criminalization model is not going to work. We need to use evidence-based solutions to figure out an answer to this problem together.
Dr. Lucas is now with Tilray, a licensed producer of marijuana on Vancouver Island near Nanaimo. He has pointed out that cannabis prohibition creates more harms than cannabis use itself and that prohibition has failed to control the use and domestic production of marijuana. He points to higher and higher arrest rates in certain parts of the country, and one of my colleagues made reference to the very uneven enforcement across the country with respect to marijuana.
He says cannabis is our top cash crop in Canada and claims it has been used by approximately 50% of the population. He says prohibition ensures that young Canadians can access unregulated cannabis of unknown potency and quality and points out that it is a well-known fact that the potency of this drug has changed dramatically since the 1970s and that the drug is often cut with other products that are either very addictive or cause great harm to those people who take them. There is no quality control. People do not know what they are getting.
Youth cannabis rates have been going up. They have gone down in the last little while, but they have generally gone up. So much for the war on drugs. So much for saying, “Thou shalt not, young people.” It has not worked. We know that. Certainly in my part of the world, it is self-evident.
Cannabis enforcement is highly disproportionate across the country. That much we know. Young men, visible minorities, and first nations are greatly overrepresented in cannabis arrest statistics. That is a fact as well. Gangs, organized crime, and so forth are part of the picture, as we all know.
There are other ways to address the problem. The country I am most interested in at the moment is Portugal. In 1997, opinion polls in Portugal said that drug use was the country's biggest social problem. Now, 12 years since Portugal decriminalized personal use of small amounts of marijuana and other drugs, meaning less than 10 days' worth, what has happened is that drug use now ranks 13th in concerns. All parties in that country—left, right, and centre—support the policy of treating drug use as a health issue, and that is the first thing that was said in the dissenting report of the NDP: that this issue needs to be understood as a public health challenge and that we have to address it as such.
In Portugal, all parties support the policy of treating drug use as a health issue, not a crime. HIV rates have plummeted as well. However, decriminalization is not the same as legalization. Portugal uses what they term “dissuasion boards”, made up of doctors, psychologists, and other specialists, which aim to get addicts into treatment and prevent recreational users from falling into addiction. When necessary, they can impose fines and community work. However, removing the fear and stigma of criminal punishment has encouraged drug users to seek the help they need.
There are different approaches around the world that need to be studied if we are going to come to terms with this issue. That is why the fundamental recommendation of the NDP in its dissenting report, again, is to create an independent commission to guide Parliament on instituting an appropriate regulatory regime for the non-medical use of marijuana.
The law of unintended consequences is with us in so many areas. We now know that states such as Colorado and Washington have essentially legalized marijuana. After a year, have there been increased rates of driving under the influence? Has there been an impact, positive or negative, on youth who consume this drug? What is the reality of that? We need an evidence base.
We have the benefit of seeing whether there have been any unintended consequences. We could now check out that experience, as well as see what has been done in Uruguay or Portugal and other parts of the world. We could see whether or not there are lessons for Canada.
That is why this independent commission has to look at what is going on in other countries and see how we can address this issue. There is no doubt that issues with respect to youth have to be addressed first and foremost, so what lessons do we have in that regard?
One thing is clear: the Conservatives' “Let's just say no” is not going to work. Zero tolerance and the war on drugs have been an unmitigated disaster. We can just look at any of the streets of any city in Canada.
The question is, what we can do if we are serious about addressing the situation with respect to youth? What are the lessons we learned? That is why this commission ought to be taken very seriously.
I remember when Mr. Justice Le Dain led the Le Dain Commission back in the 1970s. We have many insights from that experience, but all that data needs to be updated. One thing that is clear is that this is not a black and white, yes-or-no issue.
Somebody who is often a witness in British Columbia cases involving drug use and addictions is Professor Mark Kleiman, a drug policy expert at the University of California, Los Angeles. As a scientist, he says that, as with any social initiative, there could be negative effects. He advocates close monitoring of excessive use among adolescents. As I said, driving under the influence certainly has to be addressed. With respect to politicians, he says that we need to inform them that they have underestimated the complexity of this problem.
It is a complex problem. That is why these yes-no, on-off solutions, the “thou shalt nots”, just simply do not cut it. We need to hear from experts like Dr. Kleiman going forward.
That is why we talk, in the second recommendation, about the need to fund research. We need to know whether this product that is so prevalent can have benefits. We need to know what those benefits are and what the risks are. Everything in life is risk versus benefit.
We can say that alcohol is a drug, which it is, that is causing harm to many families, has a staggering impact on the workplace, et cetera, but I do not think anybody is recommending a prohibition on that substance, yet we have to figure out ways to address it more effectively. I suggest that marijuana is no different in that regard and requires the kind of multi-faceted solution. As I mentioned, the commission could address it.
The NDP has talked for many years about the idea of decriminalizing and ticketing for small amounts of marijuana, and investing in additional education and programs to reduce marijuana use by young people. I was pleased to hear the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police say that it was open to that suggestion. It wanted an expanded range of enforcement options and so forth.
This is a problem among our young people. According to the United Nations Children's Fund, in August 2013, Canadian youth were the top users of marijuana in the developed world. In fact, 28% of our youth were considered in that category. However, apparently marijuana use among Canadian youth has declined to 20.3% in 2012, according to the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.
Why has that happened? If that statistic is accurate, does it apply across the board to all demographics, all communities, aboriginal, non-aboriginal, visible minority, non-visible minority? What part of the country more or less? I would think that if we had a serious public health problem, we would want to grapple with that very type of question.
Maybe a one-size-fits-all regulatory solution does not make sense. In which case, how will we deal with it in different parts of the country if we do not assume that it is simply a criminal law issue that needs to be addressed through a simple prohibition model?
Those are exactly the kinds of things that the independent commission advocated by the New Democratic Party would address to provide guidance on implementing an appropriate regulatory approach, a modernized marijuana legal regime based on evidence and public health principles, seeking to balance prevention, public health and well-being, harm reduction, community safety and public education. Those are the hallmarks of good public policy.
I suggest that addressing the marijuana issue, both recreational and medical, is no different than any other challenge in the sphere, and that evidence-based policies need to be understood on the basis of comparative research and other countries, assessing best practices made available to Canadian legislators so we can come up with a made-in-Canada solution to address it to meet the unique needs of our country and our population.