Mr. Jeannot Castonguay (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, following the May 17, 2001 debate on the use of drugs for non-medical purposes, a special House committee was formed to examine the many issues surrounding this important topic. It will be presenting its conclusions in November 2002.
The Minister of Health and this government are impatiently awaiting the recommendations of this committee and of the special Senate committee now studying Canada's anti-drug legislation and policies.
I would remind the House that, through the various departments, which are working together to develop a drug strategy for Canada, the government is actively making its expertise available and providing support for the proceedings of these two committees.
The issue of anti-drug legislation and sanctions, and especially marijuana, is now the subject of a broad public debate. I will go over some of the proposals in the amendment proposed.
This amendment would mean that simple possession of small quantities of cannabis or cannabis resin could be dealt with under the provisions of the Contraventions Act. It would change the procedures and the legal system for offences of possession, possession for trafficking, and trafficking of one gram or less of cannabis resin or 30 grams or less of cannabis.
The Contraventions Act, which was passed by parliament in 1992, was designed to provide a simplified process for prosecuting violations of statutes and regulations that would otherwise be prosecuted under the Criminal Code before provincial courts.
According to the Contraventions Act, summary conviction offences may be designated by the governor in council as a contravention. The fact that an offence is designated as a contravention under the act eliminates the stigma normally associated with a federal conviction offence.
One of the objectives of this bill seems to be the elimination of a criminal record for possession of small amounts of cannabis. Another objective is to re-allocate the savings to the legal system toward the prosecution of dealers and traffickers of illicit drugs. These are obviously laudable goals. However, without an indepth study of the subject, including a cost benefit analysis, and information on the social and economic benefits, we cannot speculate as to whether or not the amendment would meet its objectives.
Amendments were made to the Contravention Act in May 1996. They were the result of consultations with the provinces and territories. Similar consultations would be vital for the proposed bill.
The amendments allowed violations of federal statutes to be prosecuted under the various provincial and territorial legal systems. The governor in council was able to make regulations to have a provincial system apply to the offences.
The 1996 amendments also allow the Minister of Justice to sign agreements with each province or territory regarding the administrative details of the act, implementation procedures for the act, and the prosecution of contraventions.
The Contraventions Act allows the governor in council to designate summary conviction offences under federal statutes or regulations as contraventions. Indictable offences are specifically excluded from designation as contraventions.
These proposals are all good, but we must be careful to ensure that all of these provisions are carefully considered.
Once again, we would need to have special consultations with the provinces before considering this approach.
Furthermore, we have to hear from the Canadian public on this subjec making any decisions regarding cannabis policies. This work is underway.
First, the Senate committee and the special committee of the House, together with the results of their studies, will be a considerable help in examining the questions. These committees may recommend a cost-benefit analysis and further public consultation before a decision to amend the policies on cannabis according to the Contraventions Act.
I stress the need for broad consultation with representatives of the provinces and territories to obtain their support for this approach and their opinion on its implementation. A strong consensus among the provinces, the territories and the federal government is the only way to rectify the inconsistency of the current enforcement scheme.
We must explain the changes clearly to Canadians.
We must also make sure that a new and innovative approach is not unnecessarily complex and that Canadians understand the reason for the change and its application in practice.
In addition, processes should probably be established to provide training to police officers in the appropriate enforcement of the provisions of the Contraventions Act to make sure that the result is not a broader or discriminatory enforcement of the law.
An evaluation framework would probably be needed. Mechanisms should be established to obtain the basic data on current trends in substance abuse and arrests and to monitor the social, legal and health related effects of the Contraventions Act.
In conclusion, the government believes that the time is not right to pass this amendment and that the preliminary work required has not been completed. In our opinion, the work of the parliamentary committees must be completed before any change is made to current legislation, such as the Contraventions Act, in the case of cannabis.