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Bill C-38

Cannabis Reform: What's the Big Deal?

If marijuana is generally considered to be safe compared to hard drugs of abuse like cocaine or heroin, why is cannabis such a big deal to both prohibtionists and drug policy reformers alike?

Because it is the most commonly used illegal drug in Canada, its prohibition drains more money and resources, and results in more arrests, then the prohibition of all other drugs combined.

Some facts:

  • There are currently 1.7 million users of cannabis in Canada.
  • According to Statistics Canada, there were nearly 70,000 reports filed by the police for marijuana possession or trafficking in 2002, 2/3rd of which were for simple possession.
  • There are over 600,000 Canadians that currently have criminal records for simple cannabis possession.
  • The Auditor General of Canada estimates that nearly $450 million was spent on drug control, enforcement and education programs from 1999 to 2000.
  • Taking into consideration that three-quarters of all drug offences are cannabis-related, the total cost of maintaining cannabis prohibition to Canadian taxpayers is nearly $340 million a year. This doesn't include the costs of court or incarceration.

Health care costs in regards to cannabis use:

Costs of drug use to the Ontario health system were very substantial: An estimated $1.554 billion in 1992 alone.

How do these costs breakdown?:

  • 9.0 percent were attributable to tobacco
  • 28.4 percent to alcohol
  • 0.5 percent to marijuana
  • 2.0 percent to all other illicit drugs

In other words, cannabis has nearly no impact on health care costs in Canada, especially when compared to either alcohol or tobacco.

Enforcement Statistics:

The police claim that they no longer bust people for personal possession, concentrating on hard drugs of abuse or major dealers instead. However, an examination of arrest statistics taken from actual local, provincial and RCMP websites reveals a very different story:

Canadian Arrest and Seizure Statistics:

There are over 30,000 cannabis arrests each year in Canada.

RCMP Seizures (2000):Heroin: 2kg
Cocaine: 1600kg
Cannabis: 21,000kg

BC Arrest Statistics (1999): Heroin: 843
Cocaine: 3245
Cannabis: 15,045*
*10,199 for simple possession.
Vancouver Cannabis Possession Arrest Statistics (2000): 1091 arrests*
*up 95% from the previous year.

Victoria Drug Arrest Statistics (1999): Heroin: 36
Cocaine: 107
Cannabis: 334

** The above statistics have been culled from actual police force websites and records.

Personal Cultivation:

Are grow-ops really the threat to public safety that police suggest?

While organized crime is involved in a small percentage of cannabis cultivation, a recent RCMP study of the last 12,000 grow-op busts in B.C. found firearms in 6% of the homes. Ironically, the same report showed that 24% of homes in B.C. have registered firearms. This means that a police officer responding to the average domestic disturbance call has far great odds (4X in fact) of encountering a firearm than if he was busting a grow-op.

Possible impact of Bill C-38 on cannabis usage rates in Canada:

Studies suggest that drug laws and policies are irrelevant in controlling drug use rates: For example, the Netherlands, famous for its liberal drug laws, boasts half the teen drug use of Canada; meanwhile, the U.S. has some of the most severe penalties for drug use in the world, and yet also suffers from the worlds highest rate of drug abuse and addiction.

Are fines rather than arrest a step in the right direction?

Australia's example. In the 90's, South Australia experimented with a similar system of fines called the Cannabis Expiency Notice Program:

  • System of low fines (about $45)
  • Within the 1st year of implementation, it resulted in double those charged with cannabis possession; in fact, it became a police cash grab. This is referred to as the "net widening effect".
  • Large majority of those fined were young men from 18-25, and visible minorities (much like what is already happening in Canada).
  • As these are often the people least able to pay fines, there was a 45% non-payment rate, resulting in more people getting into the criminal justice system for not paying fines than ever had for cannabis possession.

Problems with the implementation of C-38:

By ignoring court orders to recognize the rights of medicinal cannabis users in this legislation (Parker, J.P., Chen, etc.), C-38 is on Constitutionally shaky ground. This will inevitably result in an increase of arrests of legitimate medicinal users of cannabis, and thus to further court and constitutional challenges to prohibition, the result of which was seen in the questionable legal status of cannabis in Ontario this summer.

Enforcement at the discretion of police = uneven implementation. In fact, statistics show that cannabis users are already 8X more likely to be arrested in Victoria than in Vancouver.

Fines would be issued and collected under the little used Contraventions Act: about half of the provinces (including B.C.) have never even ratified the Act.

Penalties for non-payment of fines under the contraventions act include JAIL TIME; so more - not less users may end up in prison for cannabis possession under a system of fines.

Tougher penalties for cultivation likely to bring up price (ie. financial incentive) of cannabis, and this will inevitably result in further entrenching organized crime in cannabis production and cultivation, driving out "mom and pop" cultivation.

On toughening this bill:

Justice Minister Cauchon has suggested that he would be willing to accept a toughening of provisions in the bill, including reducing the amount that would result in a fine from 15 to 10 grams, and the possible addition of mandatory minimums for cultivation. In fact, a recently introduced private members bill - Bill C-248 - would set mandatory minimums for distribution, and raise the upper penalties to life in prison; although it has little chance of passing, it signifies a current trend of thought amongst some federal politicians.

Frighteningly, the implementation of mandatory minimums in Canada would lead to the very same problems currently seen in the U.S., where the erosion of judicial powers in drug cases has lead to the evolution of the biggest prison state the world has ever known, in which prisons are being constructed at twice the rate of colleges in order to allow the U.S. to house the over 2 million Americans who are currently behind bars. In addition, racial disparities in the system have resulted in there being more black men currently in jail, than in college.

Is there a better way?:

A better system would be one that takes away both the financial incentive to organized crime, and also the threat and expense of prosecution and incarceration for responsible adult personal users and producers. The way that we currently deal with alcohol may give us a clue:

Canadian drug policy would certainly benefit from a regulatory scheme that allowed for small-scale personal production much as our current laws allow us to brew beer or make wine at home for personal consumption - while sale would require proper regulation, quality control, and taxation. This would generate income that could be used to address more pressing and serious social issues, while also freeing up a huge amount of law enforcement and judiciary resources.

Isn't it better to regulate cannabis and to set an age limit, allowing for responsible adult use of a substance shown to be far less dangerous than either alcohol or tobacco, then to leave it in the hands of organized crime, who aren't likely to ask for ID or do much to improve the safety and quality of cannabis? A recent report showed that while cannabis experimentation is climbing, teen tobacco use rates are on the decline; this suggests that the model used to stem cigarette smoking - legal but controlled access accompanied by honest education is an effective alternative to prohibition and misinformation, which clearly is not having the desired effect on teen usage rates.

Canadians have expressed a desire for a science-based drug policy, rather than one based on fear and misinformation. The original intentions of Bill C-38 seemed to move us in that direction; sadly, in its current state, this bill would only serve to drain police resources, fill up our jails with non-violent drug offenders, and further entrench us in unwinnable, U.S.-style drug war.

Canadians expect and deserve better from Justice minister Cauchon and the reigning Liberal Party. It's time for the federal government to start listening to Canadian public opinion, and to the good advice of our own Parliamentary Committees, who have been recommending a relaxation of cannabis laws for over 30 years now.

The federal government has to stop funding this failed and expensive drug war, and has to stop persecuting responsible adult cannabis users.

Canadians want and deserve a drug peace.

Philippe Lucas
Canadians for Safe Access

Relevant quotes and recommendations from the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs in regards to the legal and regulatory climate surrounding use and distribution of therapeutic cannabis:

Cannabis has not been approved for sale as a medical product in Canada. Despite this lack of approval, many use cannabis for its therapeutic purposes without legal authorization. In addition, because of the many claims regarding its therapeutic benefit, a growing number of people have called for a less restrictive approach and are demanding access to cannabis for people who could benefit from its use."

One of the objectives of the Marihuana Medical Access Regulations is to provide a compassionate framework of access to marijuana for seriously ill Canadians while research regarding its therapeutic application continues. The Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs observed and noted the following:

The Marihuana Medical Access Regulations are not providing a compassionate framework for access to marijuana for therapeutic purposes and are unduly restricting the availability of marijuana to patients who may receive health benefits from its use;"

The refusal of the medical community to act as gatekeepers and the lack of access to legal sources of cannabis appear to make the regulatory scheme an "illusory" legislative exemption and raises serious Charter implications;"

"In almost one year, only 255 people have been authorized to possess marijuana for therapeutic purposes under the Marihuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR) and only 498 applications have been received - this low participation rate is of concern;

Changes are currently needed with regard to who is eligible to use cannabis for therapeutic purposes and how such people gain access to cannabis;

Research on the safety and efficacy of cannabis has not commenced in Canada because researchers are unable to obtain the product needed to conduct their trials;

No attempt has been made in Health Canada's current research plan to acknowledge the considerable expertise currently residing in the compassion clubs;

The development of a Canadian source of research-grade marijuana has been a failure.

It is time to recognize what is patently obvious; our policies have been ineffective because they are poor policies.

A Compassion-Based Approach for the Therapeutic Use of Cannabis:

It has been noted that cannabis has not been approved as a medicinal drug in the pharmacological sense of the word. In addition to the inherent difficulties in conducting studies on the therapeutic applications of cannabis, there are issues arising from the current legal environment and the undoubtedly high cost to governments of conducting such clinical trials.

Nevertheless, we do not doubt that for some medical conditions and for certain people cannabis is indeed an effective and useful therapy.

The regulations made in 2001 by Health Canada, even though they are a step in the right direction, are fundamentally unsatisfactory.

They do not facilitate access to therapeutic cannabis. They do not consider the experience and expertise available in compassion clubs. These regulations only govern marijuana and do not include cannabis derivatives such as hashish and cannabis oils.

It is for these reasons that the Committee recommends Health Canada amend the Marihuana Medical Access Regulations in order to allow compassionate access to cannabis and its derivatives.

The Committee recommends that the Marijuana Medical Access Regulations be amended to provide new rules regarding eligibility, production and distribution with respect to cannabis for therapeutic purposes. In addition, research on cannabis for therapeutic purposes is essential.

Senate Committee Recommendations:

Amendments to Marihuana Medical Access Regulations: The Production and Sale of Cannabis for Therapeutic Purposes

  1. Eligible Person:
  2. A person affected by one of the following: wasting syndrome, chemotherapy treatment; epilepsy; multiple sclerosis; accident-induced chronic pain; and some physical condition including migraines and chronic headaches, whose physical state has been certified by a physician or an individual duly authorized by the competent medical association of the province or territory in question, may choose to buy cannabis and its derivatives for therapeutic purposes. The person shall be registered with an accredited distribution centre or with Health Canada.

  3. Licence to Distribute:
  4. A Canadian resident may obtain a licence to distribute cannabis and its derivatives for therapeutic purposes. The resident must undertake to only sell cannabis and its derivatives to eligible persons; to only sell cannabis and its derivatives purchased from producers duly licenced for this purpose; to keep detailed records on patients; to take all measures needed to ensure the safety of the cannabis products and to submit to departmental inspections.

  5. Licence to Produce:
  6. A Canadian resident may obtain a licence to produce cannabis and its derivatives for therapeutic purposes. The resident must undertake: to not hold a licence to produce cannabis for non-therapeutic purposes; to take the measures necessary to ensure the consistency, regularity and quality of crops; to take the measures necessary to ensure the security of production sites; to know and document the properties and concentrations of each harvest with respect to Delta 9 THC; to sell only to accredited distribution centres and to submit to departmental inspections.

  7. Other Proposals:

The Committee recommends that expenses relating to the use of cannabis for therapeutic purposes will be eligible for a medical expenses tax credit.

The committee recommends that Canada establish a program of research into the therapeutic applications of cannabis, by providing sufficient funding; by mandating the Canadian Centre on Psychoactive Substances and Dependency to co-ordinate the research program; and by providing for the systematic study of clinical cases based on the documentation available in organizations currently distributing cannabis for therapeutic purposes (compassion clubs) and in future distribution centres.

The Committee recommends ensuring that the advisory committee on the therapeutic use of cannabis represent all players, including distribution centres and users.

The above excerpts have been extracted from the September 2002 Canadian Report Summary of the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs.

 Room, Robin: Frasier Institute, 2001  See "The Irrelevance of Drug Policy", by Cohen et al. (