Mr. Speaker, the Minister of Justice recently introduced Bill C-38, the proposed cannabis reform legislation, and I am pleased to debate the bill.
As the House is undoubtedly aware, countries treat cannabis possession in different ways. Some countries tolerate certain forms of possession and consumption, certain countries apply administrative sanctions or fines, and others apply penal sanctions.
However, despite the different legal approaches toward cannabis, a common trend can be seen, particularly in Europe, in the development of alternate measures to criminal prosecution for cases of the use and possession of small quantities of cannabis for personal use. Fines, cautions, probation, exemption from punishment and counselling are favoured by many European justice systems.
Some Australian states and territories have also adopted cannabis decriminalization measures. Some of these measures are similar to what is being contemplated in Bill C-38. I would like to take a few moments to describe the situation in South Australia, the first Australian jurisdiction to adopt cannabis decriminalization measures.
Reform of the cannabis laws in South Australia came with the introduction of the controlled substances act amendment act, 1986. This amendment proposed a number of changes to the controlled substances act of 1984, including the insertion of provisions dealing with the expiation of simple cannabis offences. This represented the adoption of a new scheme for the expiation of simple cannabis offences, such as possessing or cultivating small amounts of cannabis for personal use, or possessing implements for using cannabis.
The cannabis expiation notice, CEN, scheme came into effect in South Australia in 1987. Under this scheme, adults committing simple cannabis offences could be issued with an expiation notice. Offenders were able to avoid prosecution by paying the specified fine or fees ranging from $50 Australian to $150 Australian within 60 days of the issue of the notice. Failure to pay the specified fees within 60 days could lead to prosecution in court and the possibility of a conviction being recorded.
Underlying this scheme was the rationale that a clear distinction should be made between private users of cannabis and those who are involved in dealing, producing or trafficking in cannabis. This distinction was emphasized at the introduction of the CEN scheme by the simultaneous introduction of more severe penalties for offences relating to the manufacture, production, sale or supply of all drugs of dependence and prohibited substances, including offences relating to larger quantities of cannabis.
The CEN scheme was modified by the introduction of the expiation of offences act, 1996, that now provides those served with an expiation notice the option of choosing to be prosecuted in order to contest being given the notice. Previously those served with a notice had to let the payment of expiation fees lapse in order to secure a court appearance to contest the notice. In choosing to be prosecuted, however, people issued a notice have their alleged offence converted from one which can be expiated to one which still carries the possibility of a criminal conviction.
The expiation system for minor cannabis offences in South Australia has been the subject of a number of evaluation studies. The impact of the implementation of such a system is therefore best seen there. As I mentioned, the South Australian cannabis expiation notice, CEN, system began in 1987. The main arguments for an expiation system were the reduction of negative social impacts upon convicted minor cannabis offenders and the potential cost savings. Implicit in the former view was the belief that the potential harms of using cannabis were outweighed by the harms arising from criminal conviction.
None of the studies upon levels and patterns of cannabis use in South Australia found an increase in cannabis use that was attributable to the introduction of the CEN scheme. Cannabis use did increase in South Australia over the period from 1985 to 1995, but increases in cannabis use were detected throughout Australia, including in jurisdictions that possessed a large prohibition approach to cannabis.
In fact, the largest increase in the rate of weekly cannabis use across all Australian jurisdictions occurred in Tasmania, a strict prohibitionist state, between 1991 and 1995. A comparative study of minor cannabis offenders in South Australia and Western Australia concluded that both the CEN scheme and the more punitive prohibition approach had little deterrent effect upon cannabis users.
Offenders from both jurisdictions reported that the expiation notice or conviction had little or no impact upon subsequent cannabis and other drug use. However, adverse social consequences of a cannabis conviction far outweighed those receiving an expiation notice. A significantly higher portion of those apprehended for cannabis use in Western Australia reported problems with employment, further involvement with the criminal system, as well as accommodation and relationship problems.
In the law enforcement and criminal justice areas, the number of offences for which cannabis expiation notices were issued in South Australia increased from 6,000 in 1987-88 to approximately 17,000 in 1993-94 and subsequent years. This appears to reflect the greater ease with which police can process minor cannabis offences and a shift away from the use of police discretion in giving offenders informal cautions to a process of formally recording all minor offences.
Substantial numbers of offenders still received convictions due to their failure to pay the expiation fees on time. This was due in large part to a poor understanding by cannabis users of the legal implications of not paying the expiation fees to avoid a court appearance and due to financial difficulties. Most CENs are issued for less than 25 grams of cannabis. Half of all CENs issued were received by people in the 18 to 24 age group.
There has been strong support by law enforcement and criminal justice personnel for the CEN scheme. The scheme has proven to be relatively cost effective and more cost effective than the prohibition would have been. The total costs associated with the CEN scheme in 1995-96 were estimated to be around $1.24 million Australian, while total revenue from fees and fines was estimated to be around $1.68 million Australian. Had a prohibition approach been in place, it is estimated that the total cost would have been around $2.01 million Australian, with revenues from fines being around $1 million Australian.
A report on the CEN scheme noted that it appeared to have numerous benefits for the community, not the least of which were the cost savings for the community as a whole, the reduced negative social impacts for the offenders, greater efficiency and ease in dealing with minor cannabis offences and less negative views of the police held by offenders.
The Australian Capital Territory in 1992 and the Northern Territory in 1996 introduced similar expiation schemes. Victoria implemented a system of cautions for minor cannabis offenders in 1998 and Western Australia has followed with a similar scheme.
The changes made in the cannabis laws in Australia are not technically decriminalization measures as cannabis possession still remains a criminal offence in all Australian provinces.
What has been changed is the reduction in the penalty for possessing small amounts of cannabis for personal use to something less than imprisonment, which is what is being proposed in Bill C-38.
I would like to thank the House for giving me the opportunity to say a few words. I will conclude my brief remarks by indicating that this piece of legislation goes a long way in the right direction.