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37th PARLIAMENT, 2nd SESSION
Special Committee on the Non-medical Use of Drugs (Bill C-38)

EVIDENCE

Monday, November 3, 2003

  Mr. Philippe Lucas (Director, Canadian for Safe Access)
 
 (1550)  

    Mr. Philippe Lucas (Director, Canadian for Safe Access): Let me begin by thanking you for undertaking this imposing task, and for the opportunity to address you on this important issue. Why is this important? Since cannabis prohibition results in over 30,000 arrests in Canada each year, and as there are over 600,000 Canadians who currently have records for the personal possession of marijuana, this is no small matter.

    Bill C-38 has the truly unique distinction of being disliked by both prohibitionists and drug policy reformers alike. It must have been somewhat of a shock to Minister of Justice Cauchon that after he announced the details of this supposed modernization of Canada's cannabis policies, not a single drug policy reform researcher or activist came out in support of what is now widely seen as a move toward a failed and expensive U.S.-style prohibition. To confuse matters more, the right wing attacked the apparent decriminalization of personal possession that is the centrepiece of this bill.

    As a former schoolteacher and a current user, distributor, and researcher of therapeutic cannabis, I can assure you that this bill is of particular concern to the medicinal cannabis community.

    First, by failing to address and put into law the rights to life and freedom of medicinal cannabis users--as the government has been ordered to do by numerous courts, including the Ontario Court of Appeal in the matter of Terry Parker--the passage of Bill C-38 in its present form will inevitably result in the continued arrest and prosecution of legitimate medicinal users and cultivators. That will lead to further court and constitutional challenges to the validity of cannabis prohibition as a whole. As we have seen in the de facto court-ordered legalization that took place in Ontario this summer, this will result in confusion and consternation on all sides of this drug policy issue.

    Second, by ignoring the advice of both the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs and the House of Commons Special Committee on the Non-Medical Use of Drugs--this good committee--to allow for small-scale personal cultivation of cannabis, this bill will serve to enhance the profitability of illegal distribution, and will further entrench black-market control over the production and sale of cannabis.

    Furthermore, in consideration of a Health Canada-sponsored poll suggesting that over 400,000 Canadians currently claim to be using cannabis for medical reasons, increasing the penalties for even minor cultivation will inevitably result in a net widening effect that is sure to ensnare legitimate medical marijuana users.

    In addition, imposing tougher penalties for repeat offenders will no doubt worsen the situation for medicinal users suffering from serious chronic conditions, many of whom depend on the regular use of therapeutic cannabis to stay alive. It is a sad irony that since many medicinal users are in a low-income bracket because they are simply too sick to work, they may be the least able to afford to pay fines for personal use.

    Third, it is of questionable logic, to say the least, to allow for police discretion in ticketing or prosecuting offenders under this law, while also considering mandatory minimums for cultivation at the judicial level. Since the uneven enforcement of cannabis prohibition is one of the stated reasons for this reform, it seems counterintuitive that we would allow the police to act as both judge and jury in this matter.

    Even in the famously tolerant province of B.C., cannabis users are eight times more likely to be charged with personal possession in Victoria than in Vancouver. This kind of discrepancy is even more substantial when comparing urban and rural enforcement, and when comparing provincial arrests and prosecution statistics.

    But isn't a system of fines a move in the right direction? It might appear so, but when the territory of South Australia tried a similar experiment in the early 1990s, the immediate result was an increase in police action against cannabis users. During the first year of fines, more than twice as many tickets were issued than the previous year's total cannabis possession arrests. In other words, it became a police cash grab. Since the lower income communities were already targeted by stricter cannabis enforcement, this led to a 45% non-payment of fines.

    The experiment was terminated when it was found that more people were coming into the courts under a system of fines than ever had under full prohibition. In addition, since non-payment of fines under the Contraventions Act can lead to a criminal record and imprisonment, does this bill really remove these threats from responsible adult cannabis users?

    Furthermore, by even considering the imposition of mandatory minimums for cultivation we take away the power of reason and fairness from the Canadian court system, while moving ever closer to the failed war-on-drugs mentality of U.S. prohibition that has resulted in the biggest prison state the world has ever known, with over two million American citizens behind bars. Does it really seem sensible to turn to a country with the dubious honour of having both the western world's most expensive and draconian drug policies and the highest addiction rates in the world for guidance in this sovereign matter?

    Frankly, looking to the U.S. for drug policy advice is like asking North Korea to help us with human rights legislation. It would be better if we turned to our western European allies for guidance in this important issue. They have nearly all embraced harm reduction practices, treating drug use as a health and social policy issue rather than one of law enforcement and the courts. Almost universally this means moving toward the de-penalization of personal possession of cannabis.

    Countries that have recently decriminalized or legalized personal possession of cannabis include England, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Luxembourg, Belgium, and of course, the Netherlands. By contrast, the U.S. zero-tolerance approach has been widely and rightly rejected as overly expensive and totally ineffective at reducing the rate of cannabis use.

    A concern that is often expressed by drug war zealots is that true legalization or decriminalization of cannabis will send the wrong message to our children. As a former school teacher and child care worker, I have to wonder what positive message is sent to Canada's youth by persecuting our sick and suffering for using an herb that by any measure is far less harmful and addictive than alcohol, tobacco, or many prescription and over-the-counter medicines, such as allergy pills or aspirin.

    As the United Kingdom Police Foundation report on the reclassification of cannabis recently found, the continued prohibition of cannabis inevitably leads to an erosion of respect for the law as a whole. By arresting or ticketing people who do less harm to either themselves or society than those who use alcohol or tobacco, we create a system that leads to contempt for all of our laws, as well as for the police officers saddled with the difficult job of enforcing them.

    The Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs' well-researched report detailed legislation that would protect the legal rights of Canada's sickest citizens, as well as improve access to a safe supply of medicinal cannabis through its licensed cultivation and distribution by Canada's network of compassion clubs and societies. They are already helping over 5,000 critically and chronically ill Canadians, and continue to produce more legitimate medicinal cannabis research than Health Canada's much criticized Office of Cannabis Medical Access, all at no cost to the taxpayer.

    Since any true cannabis reform bill would be meaningless and completely unworkable without such well-reasoned additions, I have taken the liberty of including the relevant recommendations from the Senate report on the handout that accompanies this presentation.

  (1555)  

    Canadians have repeatedly expressed a desire for a drug policy that is based on science and compassion, rather than one guided by fear and misinformation. This cannabis reform bill will inevitably lead to the arrest of more responsible adult cannabis users, both medical and recreational, and to the wasting of precious police resources. In the end, it will only serve to increase the cost to Canadian taxpayers of our failed cannabis prohibition, which the Auditor General of Canada has recently estimated to be over $340 million a year.

    It's time for the federal government to start listening to Canadian public opinion, to the wisdom of the courts, and to the good advice of our own parliamentary committees that have been recommending a relaxation of cannabis laws for over 30 years now. Canadians are ready for the legalization and regulation of cannabis. We're ready and waiting for a drug peace.

    Thank you for this opportunity. I look forward to your questions.

Original link: http://www.parl.gc.ca/InfoCom/PubDocument.asp?DocumentID=1152705&Language=E#T1550




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