Bill C-344 - Official Hansard Number 111

    Mr. Peter MacKay (Pictou--Antigonish--Guysborough, PC/DR): Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the hon. member from British Columbia who brought this matter forward. I commend all members who have taken part in this debate. It is a very timely and very helpful process we are engaging in at this moment.

    Looking at the substance of Bill C-344 which calls for the decriminalization of marijuana, there is an important distinction that cannot be repeated often enough. There is a huge difference between decriminalizing marijuana and legalizing marijuana. I think there is often a great deal of confusion over this particular issue.

    The private member's bill calls for enactments within the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and the Contraventions Act which would essentially put the possession, trafficking and use of marijuana into the category of a summary offence ticket, that is, a speeding ticket or a motor vehicle type offence, that would result in potential fines and potential incarceration.

    The penalties are really not the question. It becomes a much broader debate when we engage in discussing the effects of such a change. Essentially it would lead potentially to expanded use of marijuana for very casual social purposes which is occurring now in this country. There is a realization behind the bill that a disproportionate amount of criminal justice machinery is trying to deal with this problem right now, while at the same time dealing with what I would fairly call proportionately larger problems in the country.

    The issue is one which deserves debate. It is one that is currently being debated in the House of Commons committee that it has been referred to. It has also been taken up by the Senate and the hon. Pierre Claude Nolin, a Conservative senator in the other place. They are delving into the very pith and substance of what we are discussing here today in this private member's bill.

    The hon. member for Esquimalt--Juan de Fuca has displayed a great deal of courage and diligence in ensuring that this matter comes forward. I am quick to acknowledge that other members of the House have a great deal of experience because of the predominance of this problem in their ridings.

    It is a problem on a number of levels. There is a reliance by many in society on drugs far more damaging and with much higher addictive qualities than marijuana. My colleague from Quebec raised an important issue, the distinction between whether it includes marijuana or hash and hash oil. That to me is not clear in the bill.

    Neither legalization nor increased criminal sanctions will fully address some of these complexities. There has to be a full and public debate. There has to be a great deal of attention placed on the health aspects.

    My colleague from the New Democratic Party has quite correctly pointed out that the evidence is not clear. There is a fair bit of conflicting medical research that speaks of the addictive qualities of marijuana and hashish, that speaks of the harm that can result from direct inhalation of marijuana.

    There is also the real effect that it has on a person's mental capacity, decision making, and physical dexterity in the operation of machinery or a motor vehicle. These are considerations that have to be brought into the debate.

    The problems require a variety of measures to seek out a solution. They include education, treatment and rehabilitation and government regulation in areas that may not result in criminal sanctions.

    All of this is to say that in the context of the debate, it is not a simple one. It is not just a matter of saying we are going to remove the penalties from the criminal code and put them into the context of something that is deemed less serious with less detrimental effect on a person's future. By that I mean obviously there are those in the past who have been unfairly punished or felt disproportionate results coming from the fact that they may have been arrested for possession of marijuana or have engaged in the use of marijuana.

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    We have seen a greater openness to acknowledge the medicinal benefits of marijuana in the control of pain, glaucoma and other medical afflictions in recent years. We have come a long way. I acknowledge that the legislation in this area has not changed for many years. There have been previous studies, but there is an intense and removed attitude to re-examine the issue.

    The leader of the Progressive Conservative/Democratic Representative coalition, the right hon. member for Calgary Centre, has openly supported the spirit and intent behind the legislation. In May of this year he called upon the government to decriminalize marijuana. He stated that it was not fair for a young person to face a lifelong criminal record for possession of the drug. He made the distinction between criminalization and legalization. He also noted, as I will note, that it was a personal opinion.

    I am obliged to say that within the coalition we will be having a free vote on this issue. There is a difference of opinion in our coalition and in other parties. That is healthy. Canadians openly embrace the reality that people have very different backgrounds, experiences and strongly held beliefs about the issue.

    The hon. member for Saint John who was referred to in the debate holds very personal strong beliefs about this. I understand and respect the position of my leader. Yet, even the Minister of Justice signalled that she would be open to a debate on the decriminalization of marijuana. Many Canadians are still uncomfortable with the amount of evidence that is before them, particularly on the health aspects.

    A survey last May suggested Canadians were almost evenly split on the issue of legalization: 47% in support compared to 26% in 1975. There is an apparent shift in public attitudes.

    I certainly support further study. I support and commend the effort being put forward by members of parliament and the Senate. I must be honest, however. I am not there yet. I do not feel comfortable with going down the road of decriminalization at this point.

    We are engaged in a healthy debate. The issue has been before the country. There was reference to the Le Dain commission. The medical community is more engaged in bringing forward hard facts about the effects of marijuana use. The mover of this bill is a medical practitioner and that further legitimizes and crystallizes his commitment to this issue. Changing attitudes toward the medical use of marijuana, combined with increasing demands on the law enforcement community, have also necessitated this closer examination.

    There was reference earlier that the law enforcement community is stretched to the extreme in trying to enforce all sorts of laws that proportionately require greater attention. I do not want to draw too close an analogy, but having law enforcement officers engaged in the enforcement of a gun registry, for example, highlights the ludicrous nature of giving officers too much to do without enough financial resources or enough person power to commit the task that is before them.

    This bill calls for changing the way in which we set up the fine structure. There is a great deal of concern on my part for people who suffer the inability to travel or to gain full employment in an area for which they are qualified for the reason they may have a criminal record for simple possession. That can change by having a criminal record expunged.

    The bill does not go as far as to legalize the use of marijuana. I commend the hon. member for bringing this matter to the House for debate.

    I referred to the debate within the policing community. The chiefs of police seem to support the hon. member's initiative and yet frontline police officers feel that this is not the road to go at this time.

    I believe there is a danger that those who are under the influence of marijuana suffer from a decreased drive and initiative.

    It is still a mind-altering substance, something that can affect in a criminal way the operation of a motor vehicle or at times the intent that may be involved in a criminal act.

    Again this issue is something that will be with us, I hope not for the same amount of time since the last time it came before the House. I look forward to the outcome of the Senate report and the House of Commons committee report and the further debate that will take place on the floor of the House of Commons.

    Ms. Judy Sgro (York West, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, over the course of the last decade cannabis use has been the subject of discussion in several fora.

    Today we are being asked to examine a proposed amendment to the Contraventions Act and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act regarding cannabis.

    In considering a legislative amendment, we must take into account our international obligations as a country and consider international experiences with regard to cannabis possession. As well we must also consider the need for further information in areas where our current knowledge does not suffice. While we may believe that the basis of information exists, we must not make a premature decision on this issue. Together we must identify where further data is needed and must consider the important work already in progress.

    A special committee of the Senate is currently studying Canada's drug legislation and policies, particularly with respect to marijuana. The committee is already hearing from some very informed witnesses on the subject. As well a Canadian Alliance motion debated on May 17, 2001 in the House of Commons dealt with the non-medical use of drugs. As a result a special committee of the House has been set up to consider factors underlying or relating to the non-medical use of drugs. It will be tabling its report in November 2002.

    I must say that I find it odd that the House is now debating Bill C-344 when it is clearly within the scope of the special committee.

    In making a decision on Canada's policy, whether it is to introduce changes to the legislation or to maintain the status quo, we should do it in an informed manner and in a way that does not duplicate the valuable work of these committees. We believe that the work of these committees will bring important current views of Canadians to the fore for consideration.

    This is an important issue. We will all await the results of the Senate committee and the House committee before we move forward to make any further changes.

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