Edited Hansard * Table of Contents * Number 143 (Official Version)
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Mr. John Maloney (Erie--Lincoln, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, at first glance the goal of Bill C-344 to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of cannabis would seem a straightforward one.
As hon. members have been told, under Bill C-344 simple possession of cannabis would be dealt with under the Contraventions Act rather than the criminal justice system. The Contraventions Act provides an alternative to the summary conviction process prescribed by the criminal code. It simplifies the process for prosecuting offences against federal statutes and regulations that would otherwise be prosecuted under the criminal code.
Supporters of Bill C-344 believe removing the criminal penalty would ease the burden on Canada's criminal justice system. They maintain that any savings that result could be directed to prosecuting dealers and traffickers of illegal drugs.
Easing the burden on Canada's criminal justice system is an admirable goal. However it is important to note that Bill C-344 would necessitate the creation of a new administrative regime. We need look no further than at one of our closest friends, Australia, to see that such administrative regimes can produce unexpected and often unwelcome results.
Canada can learn from the Australian experience for a number of reasons. The types of drugs and their usage rates are much the same in both countries. We have similar legal and parliamentary systems. If we look closely at the Australian example it becomes clear that decriminalizing cannabis in Canada would not be as simple or straightforward as some have indicated.
Two Australian states, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory, have converted the simple possession of cannabis into a civil offence through what is called a cannabis expiation notice system. In both states the possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use is a non-criminal process. Offenders may be fined up to $150. If they fail to pay within 60 days they are required to go to court.
While there has been no evidence of any dramatic increase in cannabis use in the two states since they introduced the expiation system in the early 1990s, officials have encountered unanticipated results regarding enforcement practices. For example, despite the fact that cannabis use remained at relatively stable levels after the expiation system was introduced, the number of offences rose disproportionately. The increase came about largely because it had become procedurally easier for authorities to fine rather than arrest.
The focus of enforcement also became an issue. Males, often of lower socio-economic status or aboriginal origin, were being charged more frequently than others. The expiation system had widened the net and increased representation of marginalized groups. The trend was disturbing for a number of reasons. Most noticeable was that the majority of the males lacked the financial means to pay their fines within the 60 day period. Almost half those who received expiation notices failed to pay their fines within the required 60 days. As a result they found themselves before the courts anyway, in danger of acquiring the very criminal record decriminalization was designed to eliminate.
Both states have been forced to take action to address the situation. In Western Australia payment options have been introduced. Clearer and more detailed information is now available so people receiving expiation notices are fully aware of the process and its consequences.
I believe hon. members will agree that it is clear Canada will face similar risks unless we insist on an informed and prepared approach to the issues. Both Australian territories had relatively sophisticated mechanisms to help them identify potential problems in the expiation system. We lack similar data in Canada. We would need to develop means to disseminate information on any new system we might introduce. We would need to find a reasonable alternative to the use of fines. This alone should encourage us to proceed cautiously and allow the parliamentary committees examining the issue to complete their valuable work.
There is another area in which Bill C-344 may be insufficient. It would maintain the link between consumers of cannabis and suppliers of cannabis, suppliers such as organized crime. Australian legislators addressed this important issue by decriminalizing the personal cultivation of small numbers of plants.
Hundreds of thousands of Canadians may be making an informed decision to smoke cannabis. If we decriminalized cannabis would we provide a decriminalized supply as they do in Australia or would we continue to drive cannabis consumers into the arms of organized crime? Put another way, would we allow organized crime to continue to profit from trafficking in marijuana or would we make a serious attempt to diminish its profits?