Bill C-344 - Official Hansard Number 111

    Ms. Libby Davies (Vancouver East, NDP): Mr. Speaker, I very much support this bill and want to thank the hon. member for Esquimalt--Juan de Fuca for bringing it forward for debate. I am glad it will be a votable bill.

    One of the issues we have to examine in deciding whether we support the bill is what the real public health risk is that is associated with cannabis use. There has been an enormous amount of evidence, which we could probably stack several feet high, to show that the risk to individual or public health from the use of cannabis is minimal. In fact what really has happened in the country is that the greatest risk to public health when it comes to drug use is from prohibitionist policies.

    It is ironic that is the criminalization of drug users, whether it is in regard to cannabis or other substances, that has created the greatest harm in our society, whether it involves individual health or safety in our communities or people who are forced into a criminal lifestyle. To me that is the heart of the issue. We must have an honest debate. We must break down the barriers and mythology surrounding Canada's drug policies and our moral attitudes toward drugs and critically examine the fact that it is prohibition and criminalization that have created harm for and risk to public and individual health, not the drugs themselves, although they can create harm.

    Today I was at the special committee on the non-medical use of drugs. We heard from a witness, Dr. Eric Single, professor of public health sciences in the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto, who has done a lot of research on drug use and substance abuse, particularly in Australia. He pointed out to the committee that in Australia where decriminalization has taken place the use of cannabis did not increase. In fact, not sending people to jail had no counterbalancing effect in terms of increasing use. What it did do was reduce law enforcement costs significantly.

    I found it amusing to hear from the government member that we have to be so careful and cautious, that we have to study it and weigh all the angles. Let us get real here. Let us remember that it was 30 years ago that the Le Dain commission conducted a thorough examination of the issue and came to the conclusion that cannabis or marijuana should be decriminalized. In fact it went further and made many other recommendations, so this is not progressing at exactly a rapid rate.

    I would argue that the public is far ahead of the politicians on this one. We can go to just about any survey, national, provincial or regional, and we will see that Canadians are much more realistic about this issue than those of us who are in elected positions. More than anything in this debate and when it comes to a vote, people need to have the courage to be realistic on the issue and break down the mythology that exists.

    We in the NDP actually have dealt with the issue. Indeed, at our national convention in 1999 we passed a resolution stating: ³Be it resolved that the NDP support the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police in its call for decriminalization of cannabis².

    This bill is a private member's bill and I thank the member for bringing it forward, but it is ironic in that I do not think his party has the nerve to do it. We really have to do a lot of education because it should be more than private members' business. It is something that as a political institution we should be standing up for and taking on. I hope the member will do some work within his own party to get it to adopt a stand for decriminalization.

    The bill is important. I guess my only complaint would be that it does not go far enough. It really is the tip of the iceberg.

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    I represent the riding of Vancouver East. It includes the downtown east side, which is probably the epicentre in the western world for HIV, AIDS and injection drug users. There is really just an open drug scene now. There are people whose lives are devastated. There are people who are in pain, who suffer trauma and who have been marginalized as a result of criminalization due to Canada's drug laws. While we are debating the decriminalization of marijuana, let us really link it to the broader issue, which is that we absolutely have to look at Canada's drug laws. They have to be reformed, just as the Le Dain commission said 30 years ago.

    Today in Vancouver the special Senate committee is actually holding a hearing and it will be hearing from drug users themselves, people who have actually come together and organized to speak out so that they are no longer marginalized and their voices are being heard.

    I had a letter sent to the hearing today because I could not be there. In outlining the crisis that has faced our community with injection drug use and the lack of action by levels of government, what I asked the committee to look at and to urge the federal government to act swiftly and adopt were the following points.

    We need a strategy and a program for user accessible treatment on demand. There are people who are facing addiction and want to get into treatment but they cannot because it is not available or not accessible.

    We need a realistic and honest drug education program focused on health and well-being. We have so many programs run by police departments, which basically tell kids that if they use cannabis or do this or that they will become drug addicts and die. Kids know that is not true. We need an honest education program focused on people's understanding of their own bodies, of their own health and of what is appropriate use, rather than just a message of ³say no to drugs² when we know kids are not listening to it.

    I have called for a safe injection site. So have many other people.

    I have called for multicentre heroin trials and for the decriminalization of marijuana for personal use as a step toward a more critical discussion on the legalization of marijuana and other substances.

    We need support and housing programs for injection drug users who have been marginalized and criminalized by current attitudes and laws.

    We also need testing of on the street drugs to provide critical information to health care providers in order to prevent overdoses. I want to say one thing about this. Because of the barriers we have to dealing with this issue realistically and because we as a society have been so afraid to deal with the issue of drug use, we have created an environment where people are literally living off the street and buying drugs on the illegal market. As a result, they are dying from overdoses in enormous numbers. These deaths are preventable. Drug overdose is now the leading cause of death for people between 30 and 44, more so than heart attacks, car accidents, strokes or cancers. These are preventable deaths if only we have the courage to provide the kind of harm reducing, realistic policies necessary, to provide treatment on demand, to provide realistic education and to help people where they are at and not further criminalize them.

    I welcome this debate today because it is one more step in what has been a struggle for legislatures in terms of standing up and taking on this issue. I sincerely hope that there will be an honest assessment of this issue in the House and that we will not hide behind our perception of people's morals. I sincerely hope that we will be honest and realistic and support the bill, that we will see it as a step toward a more critical debate and discussion about the need to reform Canada's drug laws and the fact that prohibitionist policies have caused the greatest harm in our society, both to individuals and to communities.

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