Edited Hansard * Table of Contents * Number 143 (Official Version)
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Mr. Chuck Strahl (Fraser Valley, PC/DR): Mr. Speaker, many people want to read a lot of things into Bill C-344 today. Some have decided that since the word marijuana is in the document it gives them a free reign to talk about the use of medicinal marijuana or the addictive quality of drugs in general or even whether or not this is within provincial or federal jurisdiction. Some have even wondered whether we should be discussing it at all.
Debate arises about whether marijuana is a gateway drug or a problem made worse when teenagers are involved. It is open season on marijuana issues and the reason is clear. The federal government refused to deal with this issue in a serious way.
It has been left to an opposition MP, the member for Esquimalt--Juan de Fuca, to broach the subject and get the House involved, as it should be. We need to have this debate and we should be involved.
The situation in Canada right now is approaching untenable. While there are laws on the books regarding the possession of marijuana, a first time conviction for simple possession seldom means very much in a financial or punitive sense.
A convicted person typically faces only a $50 fine. It is not much of a preventive measure. The most serious part about the whole conviction is the criminal conviction itself. Every person convicted under the current law faces a lifetime with a criminal record. It seems to me that the essence of the argument revolves around whether a person should face sanctions for a lifetime for the possession of marijuana.
The bill proposes changes that would increase the average fine for possession of marijuana to $250 for first time offenders; $500 for a second offence and $1,000 for the third offence. The difference is that the offence becomes a summary conviction, not a criminal offence. It would be more like a traffic violation, still illegal and frowned upon. An individual would still be pulled over by the police. However the individual would not necessarily end up in court.
Nothing changes the criminal offence of trafficking or selling to minors. In fact, because possession would become a summary conviction, the number of tickets written by police would likely increase dramatically since it would be easier for police to write it out than to press for a court case and all the expense and so on that goes with that.
Fines and possible deterrents would be higher under the bill than the current status quo. It would mean that some people, such as those who belong to the Marijuana Party for example, would not support the bill because they would say it is too punitive.
Let me run through the arguments in favour of the bill. Currently police catch a lot of people with a joint or two of marijuana, however only a few cases are taken to court. Why is that? It is because it does not have the time or resources to push each case to the limit. This means there is a huge amount of discretion placed in the hands of police, not because it wants to convict some and let others off the hook, but because the police and the courts would simply be overwhelmed if each case was pushed to the limit.
What then happens is that users, police and the courts soon recognize that the law is not being applied evenly and becomes something everyone tries to work around instead of applying evenhandedly and without prejudice. Once the law is flouted this much it becomes a mockery to everyone involved.
The second reason to be in favour of the bill is that the price paid for simple possession is not reasonable in a free, just and open society. I am not talking about fines but about the criminal record itself. If someone has a record the effect on his or her life is truly life changing. That individual cannot get a passport nor travel to certain countries, including the U.S.A.
It is highly unlikely that a person with a record would get a job where a criminal record check is important, including many public service jobs, security roles, working in a bank, in securities, selling real estate and so on. Today, young kids, perhaps in their only foray into the drug world, would receive a conviction that would dog them for the rest of their days.
The third argument runs like this. Alcohol and cigarettes, both legal drugs made available through the aegis of the government, cause tens of thousands of deaths and cause society billions of dollars each year in health and societal costs, yet there is no equivalent sanction for them. In fact the government delights in the tax dollars brought in each year with these mind and health altering drugs. They are as addictive and possibly more destructive than marijuana.
Why the double standard? What about the hypocrisy involved? North American leaders like Bill, I smoke but I did not inhale Clinton, and our own former prime minister Kim Campbell have admitted trying marijuana. How can these same lawmakers then throw the book at those who are doing the same thing?
Of course there are counter arguments. The active ingredient in marijuana today is many times stronger than it was when the flower children were using it in the sixties and seventies? For those out there who used the stuff when they were younger and think it is no big deal, I believe they need to realize that the stuff they used is unlike anything today. In fact, what is readily available to youngsters is almost a different drug in its potency. It is in a different league and the effects on the body and the mind are considerably different.
I am sorry to disagree with those who say it is just another herb and we should not worry about it because it is a potent drug. There is a body of evidence that suggests that kids who start experimenting with drugs at a young age will get hooked on them if for no other reason than that they simply do not have the discretion or willpower to just say no.
Why do tobacco companies target their efforts on young smokers? It is because if they can get people experimenting with tobacco before they are 18 or 19 years of age, they might become hooked. The number of people who start smoking after 20 years of age is negligible. The younger they can target people and get them started, the easier it is to get them hooked.
It is the same thing with alcohol. If we watch sporting events on TV, we would swear that it is almost impossible to have fun without a case of beer under our arms. These messages work their way into the minds of young children and before we know it they are looking for miniature Stanley cups in a 12 pack instead of a corn flakes box. These companies know how to get young impressionable people to try their products.
By taking some of the sanctions off of marijuana use we risk the possibility of some people interpreting that to mean it is all right to get into the drug scene.
There is contradictory evidence about whether or not marijuana is a drug that would lead to experimentation with other drugs. Those who treat cocaine addicts note that addicts are 84 times as likely to have had a marijuana problem along the way than those who have no addictions at all.
At the public meeting I held last week on this subject, one addiction counsellor suggested that 100% of the people he treated for cocaine and heroin addiction started their drug experimentation with marijuana. Of course everyone at the meeting, including the experts I brought in, agreed that the majority of people who use marijuana recreationally will never move on to hard drugs and likely will never be addicted to anything in their lives. However, for others the path is not a pretty one. Many of them curse the day when they decided to try the bud for the first time.
There is an argument, again brought up at the public meeting I had last week, that some societies which put an extreme sanction on the possession of marijuana are successful in reducing the number of people who actually ever try it. The example used was Japan where possession of marijuana and drugs is generally treated as a very harsh offence. Japan has a very low level of drug use, perhaps because its society is of a different make up than ours. That is in part the case. Also in part it treats drug possession of any kind very seriously and the message it sends to young and old is that drug possession is not only unwise, but it is a criminal offence that will get a person thrown in the slammer.
I was asked if I ever tried marijuana when I was young? The answer is, no I did not. When I was a young impressionable youth marijuana use was a criminal activity. That did dissuade me from trying it. Whereas I may have had a drink of alcohol because alcohol was a legal substance, even if it was not legal for a minor. The fact that using marijuana was a criminal offence made a difference to me. I did not try it. Once I became 19 or 20 I frankly was not interested in it. Age does make a difference in some cases.
What became apparent at the public meeting and in other discussions I have had is that no one should underestimate both the societal and family examples that we all portray, especially to young people, about whether or not it is a good idea to try marijuana. There are all kinds of legal and illegal drugs out there. We can name it and it is available to us. However the longer we can get young people to put off their drug experimentation, the more balance their approach will be to it. I worry that the youngsters of 10 and 12 years of age who are trying marijuana for the first time do not have the discretion necessary to make a wise decision.
I did a survey on the topic that I sent out in my householder last month. I have had over a thousand responses to date. The results are fairly evenly split. Some 56% of the people in my riding have said they want to legalize or decriminalize the use of marijuana. Some 44% have said they want to maintain the status quo where we throw the book at people for simple possession. Other surveys show that 90% of people endorse the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes only. The debate seems to be over in my riding at least.
I will be coming to a conclusion by the time we vote on the way the issue should be handled. I support the gist of the bill that marijuana should be decriminalized. The House should consider doing so at this time. We should get the bill into committee and get the rest of the details figured out.