Alistair speaks on the Liberals' contradictory marijuana policy

Mr. Alistair MacGregor (Cowichan—Malahat—Langford, NDP):  Mr. Speaker, we are dealing with a lot of confusion on the marijuana file, because the government is refusing to have a clear conversation with Canadians. I hope, sincerely, that tonight we can get to the bottom of what actual action will be taken on this file, without hiding behind smoke and mirrors.

I want to bring up a few facts that add to the present confusion. The parliamentary secretary has previously stated that the only control in place is the current criminal sanction for the production and trafficking of marijuana. He did not mention possession, although he probably did wish he had.

The Minister of Health has spoken to the United Nations and did not once say that Canada will legalize marijuana, but I suppose it was strongly intimated.

When the parliamentary secretary was asked in this House last week about the Prime Minister saying that he would legalize marijuana, there was a quick shift in his answer. He spoke about replacing the current existing criminal sanction with a more effective regulatory regime. The criminal sanction is presumably not seen as effective.

I had a great opportunity to speak with police members from Vancouver, Saanich, and Victoria during the recent Canadian Police Association reception, and they too are very confused over the government's plan. Police are justifiably uncertain on whether to enforce against small marijuana infractions, knowing that the laws are set to change.

The confusion continues with local governments in British Columbia, some of which have issued business licences for marijuana dispensaries.

The Minister of Health has stated that the government will work with law enforcement partners to encourage appropriate and proportionate criminal justice measures. In light of the plan to legalize, what exactly is the appropriate and proportionate response to stopping young people in possession of marijuana and having them live with a criminal record for the rest of their lives?

Marijuana possession of 30 grams or less can result in an up to $1,000 fine and/or six months in jail. Even if the maximum penalty is not imposed, that person still has the record. It can have profound consequences for the rest of his or her life.

Both the Liberals and NDP realize, to quote the Minister of Health again, that is "impossible to arrest our way out of this problem." This is a fact, and yet Canada today continues under existing punitive marijuana laws that harm Canadians from coast to coast to coast.

The status quo is morally unacceptable and does nothing to effectively confront the problem. What we need is for the federal government to take some leadership on this issue and decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana while we wait for it to eventually bring forward legislation for legalization.

The Prime Minister has previously stated:

“There have 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.”

However, the parliamentary secretary has since stated that they are not looking at a system of pardons or amnesty. These comments conflict with what the Prime Minister has said and give rise to questions on who is actually speaking for the government.

With this as context, I want to ask the parliamentary secretary some clear questions. Will the government decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana immediately as we wait for legalization next year? If yes, when can we expect this to happen? If the answer is no, will the government be pardoning those who get criminal records for possession?

 

Mr. Bill Blair (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, I thank the member opposite for the opportunity to provide some clarification that he clearly requires with respect to this file. I would like to speak at some length on this, but I want to be very clear on his questions.

He asked me very specifically if the Government of Canada will decriminalize marijuana immediately. The answer is no. He also asked if there is at the present time any contemplation of pardons or amnesty. I want to be very clear so that he is not further confused on this. The answer is no.

With respect to the suggestion of decriminalization, this has been a matter of some discussion over a number of years. I would simply point out to the member opposite that in 2012, the leader of his party, the hon. member for Outremont was asked very directly in a televised interview if he would decriminalize marijuana. His reply is very helpful and may assist the member in understanding some of the issues associated with his recommendation.

In response to the question of whether he would decriminalize marijuana, the member for Outremont stated, “No. I think that that would be a mistake.” He then went on to say that before ever contemplating any changes to the current control of marijuana regime, the criminal sanctions, we need to get the best medical experts, the best legal experts, and the best law enforcement experts around the table to see what is realistic. That is precisely what this government is doing.

The Member for Outremont went on to say, “but to decide in advance that it should simply be opened I think would be a serious mistake”. I agree with the comments of the member for Outremont in 2012. It would be a serious mistake.

Decriminalization would only achieve one thing. It would make it easier for the police to enforce the existing sanctions against the possession of marijuana. It would do nothing to protect our children. It would do nothing to keep marijuana out of the hands of our kids, and this is a serious health and safety problem in our communities.

It would do nothing to remove the profits of organized criminal activity associated with the marijuana trade from organized crime. It would do nothing to keep our communities safe. What it would do is make extremely difficult the implementation of an effective regulatory regime that would enable us to control the production, distribution, and consumption of marijuana.

Our government is absolutely committed to working with the scientific community to base our regulations on the best evidence, the best science, and the best advice of experts. I can talk about what the police are dealing with currently, and my knowledge of what the police deal with in this country with respect to these laws is based on more than simply a conversation at a reception. For over 40 years I was a police officer and for 10 years I was the chief of the Toronto Police Service. I can say that police officers across this country know their responsibilities and know the law. They know their responsibility is to keep their communities safe. They have the discretion to exercise their authority according to what is in the best public interest and in the interest of keeping their communities safe and I, for one, have confidence in their ability to do the job we ask them to do.

 

Mr. Alistair MacGregor:  Mr. Speaker, I am very disappointed to hear that kind of response from a supposedly progressive government. The fact of the matter is that in my province of British Columbia alone, marijuana is worth $6 billion a year. The current laws are not effective. All of that money is going to criminal organizations and the people who are getting their lives ruined by getting records are people who are innocent. They get caught with possession of small amounts and have to face a charge and sentence that will profoundly impact the rest of their lives.

If I understand the parliamentary secretary correctly, that means we have more than a year of waiting while we continue with needless arrests and wasteful trials. The justice department has confirmed it is going to cost taxpayers as much as $4 million a year. It is not what a progressive government should be doing with marijuana laws.

At least yesterday the Liberal member of Parliament for Beaches—East York had the courage to publicly say that prosecution for marijuana possession is patently unfair in light of the government's future plans on this matter.

I was wondering if the parliamentary secretary could take direction from that member.

 

Mr. Bill Blair: Mr. Speaker, our government takes its responsibility for the safety and health of all Canadians very seriously. We are not introducing legislation to legalize and regulate marijuana to improve the profits of any enterprise. We are doing it to fulfill our responsibility to keep communities safe.

I would urge all Canadians to respect and uphold the laws of Canada as they exist and we will work diligently toward the development of an effective regulatory framework that will help us achieve our public aims. We are looking forward to the opportunity of working with the provinces and territories, with Canadians from coast to coast, to find the best way to do that.