Alistair speaks on Bill C-45, the Cannabis Act

Mr. Alistair MacGregor (Cowichan—Malahat—Langford, NDP): Mr. Speaker, it is indeed a great pleasure to be rising to speak to Bill C-45. I think this is the first important step to recognize the failed approach that we have had in this country for far too long. The war on drugs has plagued Canada for far too long. We have had marijuana criminalized in this country since 1923, and I believe, based on the statistics, it is time for a change. It is time for a new approach, and this is an important first step.

 

The plans for this legalization were announced in the Liberals' plans. It has been in government now for almost 20 months, and of course we have probably until July of next year before we finally see it implemented. It will be a long time for Canadians to finally see some actions on this file.

 

The NDP will support the government's plans on this in principle, but we want to ensure that it is done effectively, that marijuana has the safeguards in place for our children, and that we have a reliable, long-term revenue stream that is specifically earmarked for public health initiatives, prevention, and all-important research, because those areas are very much lacking in our country today.

 

We do have some key differences with the government, as we do believe that the Liberals should put into action their concern about the unjust laws. The crime that still exists in this country for simple possession is profoundly unjust, for a substance that the government is going to legalize. That has always been our strong position, and we will continue to hound the government on that point whenever we get a chance.

 

Our justice system is clogged up. We have serious criminal charges that are either being stayed or withdrawn. This is all in light of the Jordan decision, yet the government refuses to act on an initiative that would free up so many police resources and so many justice resources, which are so sadly needed in our country right now.

 

As we debate this legislation, and the government is giving itself a pat on the back for meeting one of its promises, this is all being done in the light of the fact that many Canadians are still getting criminal records for possession, and it very disproportionately affects our youth and racialized Canadians. We will continue to push the government, whenever possible, on those points. We will be preparing constructive proposals for the government, especially in light of bringing pardons. We feel that those who have received previous convictions for marijuana possession should have some form of amnesty offered. I have heard some encouraging words from Public Safety Canada lately, but the government should be following through on that, and we would certainly like to see a firm commitment spoken by a minister in this House at some point in the future.

 

The government must also be clear and upfront regarding provincial responsibilities. We certainly want to see how this structure will be shared, and indeed, the provinces will have a lot of responsibilities, so it is up to the federal government to clearly lay those out.

 

There are a lot of items in the bill. It is about 131 pages. It is a lot to read through. This is quite a revolutionary step for Canada after so much prohibition. I will briefly go over some of the main points.

 

It will allow an adult who is over 18 to possess up to 30 grams of marijuana or equivalent in a public place, and it does not preclude provinces from harmonizing the age according to their liquor laws, if they so wish.

 

The Canadian Medical Association, as has been mentioned by my Conservative colleagues, has expressed concern with the age limit, and I think we do need to take those concerns into question, but the thing to remember is that age 18 is an age when we trust Canadians to vote, and age 18 is when we trust they have the ability to freely join our armed forces and fight abroad for us. It is a bit of a struggle finding that right age. We need to invest those dollars in research and prevention campaigns so that our youth understand the risks that come with heavy and sustained use of cannabis.

 

The other point that is causing a lot of consternation is the possession of up to four cannabis plants per household. This is probably something that will have to be looked at. I do not think there is anything in this legislation that precludes a municipality or a strata corporation from setting its own rules, so this is simply about removing prohibition and punishment for those four plants. However again, I think this is something with which Canadian society has already expressed a little bit of discomfort. It is something that we certainly do want to be looking at.

 

With respect to the punishments, it would allow for a punishment of up to 14 years for anyone over the age of 18 who sells marijuana to a young person. This is a fairly harsh punishment. It is actually in line with the punishments for producing child pornography and attempting to leave Canada to commit terrorism. I know it would give judicial discretion, but it is a pretty harsh punishment for this, and we need to look at whether it complies with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. With respect to young people, the legislation would allow young people between the ages of 12 and 18 to possess up to five grams of cannabis. I mentioned this in questions and comments earlier. This is about trying to save our youth. It is not about promoting the use of the drug; it is about trying to save our youth from going through the criminal justice system. If they possessed over that amount, they would be subject to the Youth Criminal Justice Act, but that is an important distinction to make. Nothing precludes the ability of provinces to institute civil, ticketable offences for this, and that is an important point to bring in.

 

There would be minor ticketing options available in this legislation, so it would give police officers some leeway. Individuals possessing over 30 grams and under 50 grams could be subject to a $200 fine. If they went over four plants and had five or six plants, the legislation would allow for a ticketable scheme. Again, this is about saving our overburdened criminal justice system, which is currently feeling the strain of the Jordan decision, and allowing those civil offences so that our criminal justice system can look at the serious charges that are currently being withdrawn and stayed in our courts today.

 

There would also be restrictions on the type of packaging and promotions. There would be a lot of freedom given to the Minister of Health in developing regulations that deal with these particular laws, so we want to make sure that there is no false, misleading, or deceptive promotion of the products and nothing that appeals to young people. We certainly want to see some clarity on child-resistant packaging; the labelling of amounts of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana; and of course the health warning, similar to what we already see on tobacco packaging. There would also be a cannabis tracking system that sets up a national seed-to-sale tracking system in order that, for all the licensed producers, we could track the marijuana that has been produced, basically from the farm to a person's household at the point of sale.

 

Here are some of the outstanding issues. As I identified in my introduction, there are a lot of key issues that are left up to the provinces. I know some provincial governments have expressed some consternation about that, but the government has rightly pointed out that this is a shared jurisdiction. The federal government has clear jurisdiction in the federal criminal law power, but when it comes to sales and distribution, that is very clearly a provincial power under our Constitution. Again, it would require some harmonization between the federal government and our various provincial governments.

 

As I mentioned in my introduction, we would like to see more information from the Minister of Finance, from the current government, on what the tax and revenue structure would be. We do not want this simply to be a cash cow for the government. We want to make sure that the funds would be generated for a reliable stream of revenue for research and prevention. I was sad to see that, on the day this legislation was rolled out, the Minister of National Revenue was present with the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, but she had nothing to say about her portfolio, which is the Canada Revenue Agency. That was a missed opportunity, in my opinion. When it comes to the long-term revenue stream, we are certainly looking for more details.

 

The other thing that has been brought up, which I have heard from my caucus colleagues and I know from the member for Windsor West, is the issues that we would have to deal with at the border with our American cousins. We know that the Trump government is taking a decidedly wrong turn on this approach, but the U.S. is our neighbour and we have to deal with the laws that it puts in place. A lot of our trade and a lot of Canadians are reliant on crossing the border with the United States freely and without hindrance. My friend from Windsor West sees so much trade go across from Windsor to Detroit every single day, and he has already expressed concern about whether truck drivers would see increased delays. This is an area where the government still has a lot of homework to do. The public safety minister has been asked this question repeatedly and his answers have been lacking so far. He owes it to all members in this House to clearly explain how the negotiations are going with our American counterparts and exactly what progress is being made in that particular area.

 

It is not just trade. When ordinary Canadians are going down for a visit, if we have legal cannabis in Canada and people are asked by a border guard if they have ever ingested or smoked marijuana, the answer can have serious consequences. While we support the overall goal of this legislation, we still have to confront the reality that exists with our closest neighbour and ally. The Trump administration is anything but consistent these days. It seems that if we are to follow the president's policy directions, we have to read his tweets. It is something that we will have to stay on top of.

 

The other item concerns the international treaties of 1961, 1971, and 1988, to which Canada is a party. I have asked the government this question a few times, and it still has not given us an answer as to what its plans are for Canada's obligations under these treaties. It is not a trick question. I would simply like to know what the government's plans are. Is it going to make an announcement that we are withdrawing? The deadline is July 1. I would hope that in the next 30 days or so, the government will come up with a plan that we can have confidence in.

 

Those international treaties represent a 20th century way of thinking on the drug policy problem. Canada has an opportunity to assume some international leadership in this regard, especially if we become the first G20 nation to legalize it. We could probably stand firm in the world and promote an alternative way of dealing with drug issues, rather than the old failed law-and-order approach.

 

I made reference to the crisis that exists in our justice system, and particularly the fact that we have seen some serious criminal charges, such as murder and assault, stayed or withdrawn. We have repeatedly pointed out to the government that it could have instituted decriminalization as an interim measure to make sure that our police and crown prosecutors do not have to deal with minor marijuana possession charges. As the law is currently written, under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, these are still crimes.

 

We do not have enough crown prosecutors, we do not have enough courtrooms, and we do not have enough administrative staff to run an effective justice system today. The minister has repeatedly identified these problems and has acknowledged that the criminal approach is ineffective, yet the government refuses to do anything as an interim measure. It is falling back on the same tired arguments, which I do not think Canadians are very convinced of. Perhaps the Liberals are, but I think Canadians, when they hear those arguments, do not buy into the Liberal argument. Aside from appointing the proper number of judges and resourcing the system properly, enacting decriminalization could be very effective.

 

Let us go to the Liberal platform of 2015, and I am going to paraphrase it here. The Liberals acknowledged in 2015 that arresting and prosecuting in cannabis offences is expensive for our criminal justice system and traps too many Canadians in the criminal justice system for minor, non-violent offences. They will find no disagreement from the NDP on that claim.

 

As for decriminalization, historically opposition to decriminalization usually came from those who favoured continued prohibition. There have been fears expressed that decriminalization would send counterproductive messages that would increase the use of cannabis and related problems, and that it would sustain and possibly strengthen criminally controlled contraband trade in cannabis.

 

Despite these largely unsubstantiated fears, many nations and subnational states have opted for the decriminalization model. Researchers have found that under prohibition, cannabis users, for the most part, even in times of easy access, moderate their cannabis use, such that it does not interfere with their lives or lead to adverse health consequences. These patterns appear to persist under decriminalization.

 

For decades, research on the impact of cannabis decriminalization has shown that in a variety of jurisdictions, including Australia, Europe, and the United States, decriminalization does not cause an increase in consumer demand or in the ease of access.

 

What decriminalization does do is decrease the related social problems, the criminal records that people have tied around their necks for the rest of their lives, and the impact on employment and people's ability to rent or to travel. It also reduces the costs in our judicial system. On this side of the House, the NDP feels that this is a solution that is backed by science, and it would immediately relieve some of the pressure on our overburdened justice system.

 

There is a fair amount of commentary in Canadian cannabis literature that contains concerns that cannabis trade in Canada is under the control of violent and exploitative criminal elements, causing harm to users and children. The Liberals really love to say that they want to legalize, strictly regulate, and restrict access to cannabis in order to keep it out of the hands of children and the proceeds out of the hands of criminals. New Democrats agree with that approach, but it is more of a fear-based objective in that Liberals do not want to decriminalize because of those reasons.

 

It should be noted that only a particular share of the illegal cannabis trade occurs within international crime syndicates. There is good cause to doubt that most cannabis users in Canada would ever have contact with violent exploitative criminal organizations or people. Most people buy small amounts from friends, family members, or close acquaintances, yet the Liberals have continued with this fearmongering. They say that every day our kids turn to dealers, gangs, and criminals to buy marijuana, putting them in harm's way. That is simply not true. That is fearmongering at its worst.

 

Studies have shown that the illegal cannabis trade, as it stands today, resembles more of a disconnected cottage industry in which independent and otherwise law-abiding people attempt to support themselves and their families. They are meeting demands in their communities. Basically, it is something that most Canadians do not believe should be illegal in the first place. Many people in small towns, when the economy gets tough, have turned to growing and selling cannabis. They are not violent criminals, but the Liberal approach treats them as being in that category, even the people who purchase and possess marijuana. It is a failed approach, the politics of fear.

 

A study by the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition found that links between the cannabis trade and violent organized crime groups have been greatly exaggerated. It describes cannabis operations as independent, small in size, local, non-violent, and modest in realized revenues.

 

When the Prime Minister first announced that he favoured the legalization of marijuana, it sparked a lot of questions from society, and one of the questions was about pardons. He said the following: “There has been many situations over history when laws come in that overturn previous convictions and there will be a process for that that we will set up in a responsible way.” We will certainly be holding the Prime Minister to his word. However, he has been contradicted by the Minister of Public Safety, so I would appreciate a clear and concise statement from the government at some point on what precisely it is going to do with respect to pardons.

 

I want to turn to how legalization would affect youth and racialized Canadians.

 

Thirty per cent of Canadian youth have tried cannabis at least once by the age of 15, which is the highest use among many different countries, and it would disproportionally affect those people. The Prime Minister acknowledged the wrongs of this in the past when he related the story of how his late brother was able to get off because of his father's connections in the legal community. It is one type of justice for the wealthy and well-connected and another type of justice for the poor and marginalized groups. The cost of a pardon is $631. When people are living on the margins of society, how are they supposed to afford pardons in order to clear their names and get ahead in life? That question has not yet been answered adequately by the government.

 

I will conclude by restating that the status quo approach has been a complete failure. The war on drugs has cost billions of dollars but has not produced the results that we as a society had hoped for and demand. A new approach needs to be taken. I will therefore support this bill in principle at second reading. It deserves very close scrutiny in the Standing Committee on Health. I and my colleague from Vancouver Kingsway, the NDP health critic, will be working together to make sure it gets the scrutiny it deserves.