Mr. Speaker, this afternoon's debate on Bill C-93, an act to provide no-cost, expedited record suspensions for simple possession of cannabis, gives me the chance I have long sought to make a clear statement in the House of Commons as to the principles that underlie my long-standing views on cannabis legalization. This is actually my second chance, as I was also able to do so in addressing the private member's bill on the same subject a couple of weeks ago.
I have long favoured the legalization of marijuana. Indeed, I have favoured it since I first sought elected office, almost 20 years ago. My views on the subject were first expressed at a public policy conference in 2001 and published in Policy Options the same year, so my comments on this subject have been on the record for a very long time.
I have always couched my arguments in practical rather than abstract terms. However, the debate today, like the one a couple of weeks ago, allows me to discuss the civil liberties issues associated with the war on drugs separate from the discussion of marijuana legalization. We are not discussing marijuana legalization today. That deed is done and cannabis is legal. If this bill is defeated tonight, cannabis will still be legal. If after tonight's discussion the bill goes on to receive royal assent by the end of this Parliament, cannabis will retain the same legal status.
Tonight we are not talking about the impact that chemicals in drugs could have if we were to legalize them. Today we can say that this is irrelevant to the discussion. We are talking purely about the harm caused by the act of turning a victimless act into a crime.
Today, I want to say, as I did 18 years ago when I first published on the subject, that it is morally wrong to criminalize the personal use of any substance when the use or misuse of that substance would cause no harm to any individual other than the user himself or herself. The act of ingesting cannabis or alcohol, for example, and then driving a vehicle on a public roadway endangers others and is not a victimless crime. That is why it is illegal. That is why it ought to be illegal. However, consuming cannabis and then staying home for the weekend is victimless. For that matter, consuming alcohol and staying home for the weekend is also victimless.
When no person is victimized, other than the person engaged in the act, then it is a moral evil for the state to penalize the person who engages in that act. This principle would apply even if it were the case that none of the following conditions were true.
This principle would apply even if it were not the case, for example, that some people suffer from trauma that causes them to make impulsive choices, especially with regard to mood-altering substances. When these individuals are penalized, the law in effect singles out for punishment those who have suffered from the abusive behaviour of parents or partners, or from the trauma of war, or from fetal alcohol syndrome, or from simple brain trauma. The principle that victimless acts should never be punishable would apply even if it were not true that some people are endowed from birth with genes such as the NRXN3 gene, which in 2011 was identified as being associated with a greater likelihood of becoming addicted. In this case, the law is singling out for prosecution those who have lost the genetic lottery.
The principle would apply even if it were not true that those who have greater influence and power are far less likely to be prosecuted than an average Canadian who has committed the same offence. A case that makes this point is that of the Prime Minister's brother, Michel Trudeau, who escaped prosecution for marijuana possession 21 years ago because of the intervention of his father, who was at the time himself a prime minister.
Here is how our current Prime Minister put this in a speech two years ago. He reported that back in 1998, his father, Pierre Trudeau, “reached out to his friends in the legal community, got the best possible lawyer and was very confident that he was going to be able to make those charges go away.” He continued, “We were able to do that because we had resources, my dad had a couple of connections, and we were confident that my little brother wasn't going to be saddled with a criminal record for life.”
The principle that no one should be punished for a victimless act would be true even if it were not the case that disadvantaged Canadians who are statistically more likely than their fellow citizens to be caught, prosecuted and saddled with a criminal record for life are far likelier to be members of social or racial groups that appear to be marginalized in other ways too.
Two criminologists from the University of Toronto found that in the period of 2015 to 2017 in Halifax, black people were five times more likely than white people to be arrested for cannabis possession. The same researchers found that in Regina, in the same period, 2015 to 2017, very recent history, indigenous persons were nine times more likely than white people to be arrested for this offence.
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, who was one of the two criminologists, stated, “We know that rates of cannabis use are relatively similar across racial groups. So the fact that specific groups have been disproportionately targeted for drug law enforcement, especially black and Indigenous populations, strengthens that need for amnesty and for pardons. Because those groups have not only been disproportionately targeted, they have been disproportionately harmed by the consequences of having a criminal record.”
Therefore, it is not merely the issue of cannabis legalization that affects people on a racial basis. It is the removal of those byproducts of that racialization of the legal system. Given these facts, I think we can say that this is the very definition of systemic racism, regardless of the proximate cause of each individual arrest.
Of course, the foregoing examples of inequity really do exist and therefore, the provision of the Criminal Code prohibiting the possession of small quantities of marijuana, which happily is now repealed, was wrong at all of these levels too.
If the underlying offence ought never to have been an offence in the first place, which is not merely what I feel but what has already been decided by Parliament when it enacted the Cannabis Act a year ago, then it stands to reason that the retention of any long-term penalty such as a criminal record for the formerly unlawful activity must be wrong for exactly the same reasons. This is true whether it is a charter-protected right that we are talking about or whether it is merely the practical impact on some groups that have been discriminated against in the application of the law. It is true even when the issue is not whether the wrong is a charter prohibited wrong but whether it is merely a wrong when viewed from the point of view of natural justice, a point which is of very considerable significance when we speak about the distinction of the reasons why the government will not issue record expungements as it has done for offences under the Criminal Code at a time when homosexual acts between consenting adults were illegal.
To be clear, the retention of criminal records for persons who used marijuana when it was a criminal offence represented an ongoing injustice and represents today an ongoing injustice that must be remedied. Quite frankly, a provision expunging the records of persons found guilty of possessing less than 30 grams of cannabis ought to have been included in the Cannabis Act a year ago. Why it was not, particularly given the heartfelt civil libertarian sentiment that must have been the motivation for the Prime Minister to share that very personal story about his father and late brother, remains a mystery to me. I note that in other jurisdictions that have legalized the non-therapeutic use of cannabis, the recreational use of cannabis, such as California and Vermont, provisions expunging the records of those convicted under the repealed statutes are part of the repeal legislation itself.
Now, it is too late for Canada to make a perfect copy of that enlightened example, but it is not too late for us to correct the oversight. Bill C-415 standing in the name of my colleague, the member for Victoria, was an effective and well-designed instrument for achieving an end to this lingering injustice.
Bill C-93 is a less perfect and less complete way of achieving the same end for many, although not all, of those who face this injustice. About 500,000 Canadians, which is around 1% to 2% of our adult population, have criminal records for the possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal consumption. Had Bill C-415 passed, it would have expunged all these records.
An expungement is not quite the same thing as a pardon or record suspension, which is what the current piece of legislation, Bill C-93, proposes. It differs in a number of ways. For one thing, a pardon must be formally requested. Any person can apply for a pardon, but under normal circumstances, only after waiting for a period of not less than five years, in the case of a summary conviction, and only upon the payment of a fee of just over $600. Had Bill C-415 gone forward, expungement would have been immediate and costless.
Bill C-93 would not do quite the same thing. The bill's very long title tells the entire story. People would not pay a cost and there would be no waiting time, but they would have to make the application, and then the Parole Board would decide whether to issue that pardon, if the applicants met a series of conditions. It is therefore called an act to provide no-cost, expedited record suspensions for simple possession of cannabis. It would get rid of the five-year waiting period and eliminate the $600 fee, and that is it. As far as it goes, that is good, and for this reason, I will be voting for the bill in principle, to send it off to committee later on this evening.
However, I want to be clear. Bill C-93 does not go far enough, because a record suspension is not an expungement. Unlike an expungement, a record suspension does not result in the permanent destruction of a record of a conviction in federal databases. Unlike expungement, where the person is deemed under Canadian law never to have been convicted of the offence in the first place, one would still be guilty of that offence. One would still have been convicted. It is just that no one could see that anymore.
There are some significant, meaningful differences here. As everyone knows, American border control officials reserve the right to ask Canadians who are crossing the border if they have a criminal record for using marijuana. Canadians are regularly turned back at the border if the answer is yes. Everyone should know that if people answer this question untruthfully and lie to an official of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services while on American soil, as people do when they are going across a land border, as opposed to in the Toronto or Vancouver airports, where they do so while on Canadian soil, they can be arrested on the spot. If records were expunged, but not if pardons were issued, it would be possible for people to answer truthfully, whether travelling by land or air, that they did not have a criminal record for this former offence. This is a very meaningful distinction.
The government uses the following rationale for not using expungement in the case of cannabis offences. I am quoting from the Liberals' press release of March 1, 2019, which is the day Bill C-93 came out. It said:
Expungement is an extraordinary measure reserved for cases where the criminalization of the activity in question and the law never should have existed, such as in cases where it violated the Charter.
I just want to be clear about what is wrong with that logic. The Liberals were making specific reference to the fact that consenting homosexual acts were once illegal, and now any law that prohibits them is regarded as a violation of the charter. It is true that this is a charter distinction, whereas cannabis could be recriminalized without violating the charter. That is about the charter. It is not about the morality of the underlying act. We have said in Canada that there is nothing wrong with consuming cannabis for personal use and possessing small amounts for personal use. There is nothing wrong with it.
I defy any member of the government to stand up here and say that she or he believes that it was morally wrong, that the underlying act was morally wrong a year ago or two years ago or 10 years ago or 50 years ago, that it was morally wrong then and it is morally okay now, any more than it was morally wrong to commit a homosexual act 10 or 20 or 100 years ago and now it is okay.
The fact is that it was never wrong in the case of a consenting gay act between adults, and it was never wrong with regard to cannabis. This distinction, which has to do with what made it into the charter and what did not, because sexual orientation almost did not make it into the charter, is just nonsense.
The fact is that more people who are marginalized because they are poor, mentally ill or come from a group that suffers racial discrimination, and there are different kinds of racial discrimination in different parts of the country, are being prosecuted and persecuted, and they have been in the past. The fact that the cops have been acting in a racist way in different parts of the country at different times does not make what happened to these people somehow less bad than what happened to people who were convicted for committing the supposed crime of engaging in consensual homosexual activity. This is a nonsense distinction.
I point out that I was down in Washington, D.C., last week meeting with members of the House of Representatives in the Senate, who are considering making changes to their cannabis laws. They are not necessarily looking at legalizing it for recreational purposes, as we are doing here, although some favour that. Many want to look at medical marijuana changes, which would make it available to veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. One bill would prohibit officials of the U.S. border services from asking Canadians if they have a cannabis-related conviction. Another one would deal with interstate banking laws as they affect cannabis operations that are legal under state law.
In the United States, they are very aware of the civil liberties issues and the racially inequitable way in which these laws have been applied in their country. The word that is used universally when discussing getting rid of criminal records is “expungement”. There is no reason in the world the government should not accept expungement of these records.
This bill, as I have said, is good as far as it goes. Later on this evening, I will be voting for it, and I encourage my colleagues to do so. However, it is not good enough. It is not acceptable to leave a systemically racist pattern of law enforcement in effect after we have said that the crime itself should never have been a crime and that it was never wrong and is not wrong.
It was okay for the Prime Minister, who was never caught, to use pot when it was illegal. He just did not get caught. He admitted after the fact that he used it. Somehow that is okay, right? I never heard him say that he used it when it was illegal and that it was morally wrong then. I never heard him say that if he had been caught, it would have been right for him to go to prison or to have a criminal record for life. He did not say that. He said that it should not have been wrong, so we are getting rid of that law. He was right about that. He would have been right to make sure that nobody who did not have a prime minister for a dad or the world's best Rolodex would ever face a situation of having a criminal record for life.
The bill is good; it is not good enough. I will be voting for it. I will be very much encouraging members on the committee to vote for some form of amendment to encapsulate the very important consideration brought forward by my colleague from Skeena—Bulkley Valley about taking care of those who have some kind of minor procedural item on their criminal records and are therefore going to face this being left on their records for life. It is an excellent idea. I hope the Liberal government will show some flexibility in this regard. It would be an excellent litmus test of whether the purpose of this bill is to help people or to simply take an issue away from the New Democratic Party, which produced an earlier and better bill on the same subject.