Alistair demands that simple possession of marijuana be decriminalized

Mr. Alistair MacGregor (Cowichan—Malahat—Langford, NDP):   Madam Speaker, before I begin, I would like to say that I will be splitting my time with the member for the great riding of Port Moody—Coquitlam.

    It is a great honour to be rising to speak to the motion that was brought forward by my friend from Victoria because it is a motion the House really needs to debate. Furthermore, it shines some much-needed sunlight on the absolute confusion and contradictions of the current Liberal government when it comes to marijuana policy. It is a discussion the House needs to have, and more important, it is a discussion that Canadians need to hear.

    We are debating a motion that would recognize the contradiction of continuing to give Canadians criminal records for simple possession of marijuana, after the government has clearly and explicitly stated that it should not be a crime. That is a glaring contradiction and is completely unfair.

    We have heard in the House before, and I am sure many Canadians have heard, that the definition of insanity is to do things over and over again expecting that, even when it brings about the same result, it will bring a different result. That is simply what we are doing in this case with our marijuana laws and it is time we take a closer look at them.

    Cannabis prohibition in Canada has a history that goes back to the 1920s when it was first added to the narcotics drug act as an amendment after a very late night session in April 1923. Its prohibition, going to the United States as well, has also been linked with some of the racial policies as it was seen as an effective tool of controlling Mexican immigrant labour. There is a very clouded history with marijuana prohibition and not all of it was based on completely clear science.

    Legalizing marijuana was the big campaign item of the Liberal plan. However, since the Liberals have taken office, not very much has been done. It has already been a big change from the Liberal position. In 2009, the Liberals voted with the Conservatives to introduce mandatory minimum sentences for cannabis-related offences, not a sign of a very progressive party back then. We even have former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien calling for the decriminalization of marijuana. We see even within the Liberal Party itself there are a few different splits, and the official policy of the government is off base with a lot of those members.

    It is the height of hypocrisy that we have a Liberal government that openly and loudly campaigned on the promise to legalize and regulate marijuana and is now refusing to do anything for Canadians who are found guilty of that possession. The parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Justice continues to repeat that the law is the law is the law, and that he hopes that all Canadians will respect the law. He has made mention of the fact that he is of the opinion that decriminalization would not do anything to protect our children or to remove the profits from criminal activity.

    While I respect the parliamentary secretary's many years as a police officer, his statements are somewhat misleading to the House and to the Canadian public. Let me make this perfectly clear for everyone listening right now. Under our current marijuana laws, the black market is worth $6 billion in British Columbia alone. Criminal sanctions up to this date have completely failed to make a dent in this trade. As for children, let me also inform members of this fact. Under our current prohibition laws, one can go to pretty much any major city in Canada to the nearest street corner, and marijuana will be easier to obtain than either alcohol or tobacco, two products that are strictly regulated by the provincial governments.

     I applaud the fact that the Liberals will be moving ahead with legalization and regulation sometime in the future. However, what we are talking about is the here and now and the continued unfairness of our current regime. Provincial governments regulate alcohol, tobacco, and gambling, and they make millions of dollars off all three. It can be argued quite clearly and with lots of evidence that all three do much more harm to our society than does marijuana, yet look at the laws we have; they are completely unbalanced.

    I of course agree that we must do everything to reduce harm to our children. I am a father of young children and I expect it is a conversation I will have to have with them at some point in the future. However, using the argument that decriminalization would do nothing toward preventing children from using the drug or that it would do nothing against criminal profits is a logical fallacy of the highest degree, especially when the current regime is quite clearly failing in both of these regards right now.

    The time has come to talk about what decriminalization will do.

    Under our current Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, under subsection 4(4) and subsection 4(5), marijuana possession of 30 grams or less can result in up to a $1,000 fine and/or six months in jail, and yes, it comes to the discretion of the police officer. However, our problem on the NDP side of the House is that the law is applied haphazardly depending on which jurisdiction in Canada a person is in. I do not feel that it is right to base a person's future on the simple discretion of a police officer. We need to have current laws that apply equally in every part of this country.

    This can have profound consequences on a person's life, and not many of our young people are aware of those consequences. As we continue with the prohibition of marijuana, they might not get criminal sanctions. They might not even get a charge, but they will always have it on their record that a police officer stopped them for that, and it can haunt them for years to come.

    In 2014, there were 161 marijuana possession charges per 100,000 Canadians, and that is a total of about 57,314 Canadians in 2014 alone. Possession of cannabis is responsible for 54% of all police-reported drug crime.

    The Minister of Health has been quoted a few times saying that it is impossible to arrest our way out of this problem. Yet by not supporting decriminalization efforts, that is precisely what the Liberal government is doing. We are continuing to arrest our way out of this problem, which I want to make perfectly clear. Canadians should not have to wait for another year and a half for the current Liberal government to get its act together on a promise it made to Canadians. It is completely morally unjustifiable.

    When we have a Prime Minster who, on the campaign trail, made an explicit promise to Canadians that the marijuana laws were going to be reformed and that legalization was going to be brought in, and then that party forms government, we can understand the confusion. I have constituents who thought that marijuana was suddenly okay to possess the day after the Liberals got elected. I have had police officers tell me that they do not know whether to apply the law equally or not, because they simply do not know what the government's intentions are.

    My friend, the member of Parliament for Victoria, has already quoted a few justices who said that they do not want to be the last judge to hand out a marijuana sentence because of the intent of the government. It is complete chaos and confusion, especially on the west coast of British Columbia, an area I am so fortunate to represent as a member of Parliament.

    The promise that the Liberals made has evaporated into nothing, because that is what we have now. We have nothing. We have no action. We have the status quo. Canadians did not vote for the status quo. They did not vote to continue with indefensible punishments of possession of marijuana while we wait for the government to get its act together and introduce laws sometime next year.

    Canadians will continue to be arrested. They will continue to receive criminal records. They will continue to be listed in police databases and continue to suffer from those records long into the future. It is another year or more under our Liberal government of needless arrests and wasteful trials, tying up our police resources and the courts. The Department of Justice has confirmed that this will cost taxpayers as much as $4 million a year, a complete waste of taxpayer resources.

    These are not the actions of a progressive government on marijuana laws. If anyone needed further evidence that the word “progressive” was used as a convenient bumper sticker by the Liberal Party for electoral purposes, they need look no further than the blatant and completely unfair stance of the current government on marijuana. Shame on them for continuing this failed policy. Shame on them for not standing up for what is right. Shame on them for breaking a clear promise.

    I am proud to be a part of a party that has stood strong on the decriminalization of marijuana since the 1970s. Liberal members can continue to quote the member for Outremont on what he said in an interview in 2012, but the history is clear. The NDP has been on the right side of this issue for decades now. We will continue to lead the right charge and we will continue to stand up for what is right.

    The Prime Minister's father once famously said, “There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation”. The time has now come for the state to get out of people's personal choices with respect to marijuana possession and use, especially if there is no harm or violence being committed.

    I call on the government to immediately move to decriminalize marijuana, take the right action, and be on the right side of history.

 

Mr. Bill Blair (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, Lib.): Madam Speaker, I want to clarify a few points.

    The member commented on the issue of decriminalization and suggested that our policy was motivated by anything other than the evidence.

    I just wanted to inquire if the member was familiar with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, CAMH, located in Toronto. I quoted liberally from its report of October 2014 earlier today. It has offered a number of significant evidence-based conclusions about cannabis and measures aimed at reducing harm.

    In that report it was quite specific that decriminalization was a half-measure and that it failed to address the harms associated with the prohibition against cannabis use. It strongly recommended our government's proposed approach of legalization accompanied by a strict public health regulatory framework.

    Has the member had the opportunity to read that evidence, which is quite compelling and would help clarify for him some of the concerns he has expressed today?

 

Mr. Alistair MacGregor:  Madam Speaker, I have not read that particular report, but this issue has gone on much longer than that report.

    In 1969, a royal commission began an inquiry into the use of cannabis. Its recommendations included the need to repeal the prohibition against simple possession of marijuana and cultivation for personal use.

    If we are going to talk about harm reduction, let me say this to the member. The reason for this statement was that the commission concluded that the criminalization of cannabis had no scientific basis, and the “costs to a significant number of individuals, the majority of whom are young people, and to society generally, of a policy of prohibition of simple possession are not justified by the potential for harm” that comes from criminal sanctions. That was continued again in a Senate report in 2002.

    If we are talking about harm reduction, let us stop sending people to jail.

 

Mr. John Brassard (Barrie—Innisfil, CPC):  Madam Speaker, it is good to see that the hon. members from that party are quickly coming to the realization that it is the Liberals who are failing on many campaign promises and are in fact much worse in that regard than the Conservative Party.

    I want to talk about this particular motion and the fact that under the current regime, there is a lot of confusion in this land, confusion among people, which the hon. member spoke to, and confusion among police agencies on enforcement, given the fact that the Liberals have announced that they are suspending legislation.

    Would the motion the NDP is proposing today not create more confusion, not just for police agencies but for others as well?

Mr. Alistair MacGregor:  Madam Speaker, I would argue the exact opposite. Right now, police are caught between a government's intentions and what the law actually is.

    I attended the recent police convention, the reception in Ottawa. I had the chance to speak to many police officers from both the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island. They understand that the law is the law. However, when that is contrasted with a sitting government's intent to change the law, it leads to nothing but confusion.

    We are simply trying to make the law clear. It is a stop-gap measure while we get to the government's intentions. Let us stop harming people with criminal records. The police have much bigger things to do. They could go after drug traffickers. People who possess marijuana are not a threat to society. This is outdated science and outdated moral values. It is time to move on.

 

Ms. Anne Minh-Thu Quach (Salaberry—Suroît, NDP):  Madam Speaker, Marie-Josée Dumas, executive director of Liberté de choisir, an addiction prevention organization in my riding, said that the Prime Minister's promise has already had a negative effect on the ground because young Canadians now think that the possession and use of marijuana is already allowed. If legalization is not necessarily preceded by decriminalization, many users will be caught in the trap and will end up with a criminal record. They will not be able to work, and it will be hard for them to find housing and insurance, among other things, for 10 years following a conviction.

    What are my colleague's thoughts on that?

 

Mr. Alistair MacGregor:  Madam Speaker, I could not agree with my friend more.

    This is about looking to the future, about stopping criminal records for young people. That is who it affects. It is completely unjustifiable and immoral that we are saddling these young people with these records far into the future and are putting the onus on them to clear their records.

    It is time to move on. Our police have better things to do.