The Cannabis Community’s Greatest Ally in Parliament Speaks Against Bill C-26

Member of Parliament Libby DaviesMember of Parliament Libby DaviesDear Friends: I’m sending you this update about the debate in parliament over Bill C-26, a bill that proposes to introduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences. The Conservatives are selling this bill as tough on organized crime and big time traffickers. The reality is that mandatory minimums do not deter organized crime. Instead, they affect almost exclusively the small dealers, street traffickers, and non-violent offenders while leaving the door open for organized crime to step in and fill the void created at the lower levels.
Mandatory Minimums for drug sentences increase enforcement costs exponentially, and the burden on the criminal justice and prisons systems is great. Relying almost solely on enforcement will fail here as it has in the U.S. Canada must have a balanced approach to drug use. The NDP advocates a 4 Pillar Approach: Prevention, Treatment, Harm Reduction and Enforcement, which has been successful in Europe and is being adopted by big city Mayors in Canada.

I’ve included below some of my contributions to the debate from yesterday (April 15, 2008). The NDP will keep up the pressure in parliament against this regressive bill, and fight for fair and rational drug policies. The full text of yesterday’s debates, including statements against Bill 26 from other NDP MPs, can be found online by clicking this link:

Libby Davies

House of Commons
April 15, 2008

Ms. Libby Davies (Vancouver East, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have this opportunity today to speak at second reading to Bill C-26, which deals with minimum mandatory sentencing for drug crimes.

I have to begin by saying that it is not really a surprise that we are debating this bill, although in my comments I hope to show that the bill itself is seriously flawed and very ineffective. However, it is not a surprise that the Conservative government has brought forward this bill because it is very much a part of its core agenda where it is trying to give people the illusion that it is dealing with a serious problem in our society, in this case drug use, by coming in with a very repressive and heavy enforcement regime.

My riding of Vancouver East has often been in the media and it is a community that has been at the epicentre of a drug crisis not only in Canada but in North America. I have become very involved in this issue over the course of being a Member of Parliament for 11 years. I have become very involved in looking at drug policy, what works, what does not, and what kinds of reforms are taking place not only in Canada but around the globe.

In my community of East Vancouver, we are very proud of the fact that we are home to North America’s first safer injection facility called Insite. In fact, just yesterday in the House, I questioned the Minister of Health to find out if finally the government would acknowledge the dozens of studies that have been done which show that Insite is a very effective program that has reduced drug use and improved safety, and finally make a decision to allow Insite to remain open. Unfortunately, the Minister of Health, as on previous occasions, did not respond to that question and did not make it clear whether or not Insite will continue.

However, I want to say that in Vancouver, there have been many amazing advances in terms of our understanding of the drug issue, how it impacts people and what kinds of public policies need to be developed. In fact, two former mayors of the city of Vancouver, Philip Owen and Larry Campbell, were very involved in setting the stage through their leadership for a changed policy around drugs. Groups like VANDU, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, have been instrumental in transforming the debate.

So often this debate is about dividing people, of saying there are good people and there are bad people. People who are drug users are automatically labeled as traffickers or dealers. We have seen a history in Canada, as we have in the United States, of this issue being used in a way to create fear. I call it the politics of fear and this is something very much that the Conservatives have picked up on, but in East Vancouver, and in Vancouver generally, we have rejected that kind of model. We believe that the issue of substance use, drug use, has primarily to do with public health. It has to do with ensuring that people make good choices, that people are supported in prevention, treatment and harm reduction when they need it. The more we criminalize drug users, the more we create further harms, as I hope to show in the debate today.

I do want to say that for the NDP, one of our overall concerns is that there is absolutely no proof that mandatory minimum sentences are effective and an appropriate measure to reduce drug use and crimes related to drugs. In fact, most evidence shows the opposite. This bill does not address the core issue of why people use drugs. In fact, what it does do is increase an already imbalanced and over-funded enforcement approach to drug use in Canada without reducing crime rates or drug use. What this bill further does, in the whole program that we have seen from the Conservative government, is to abandon successful measures, such as harm reduction and grassroots education programs.

What we are most concerned about is that this bill is moving Canada toward an expensive, failed, U.S.-style war on drugs that we know spends tens of billions of dollars a year on enforcement and incarceration while crime rates soar and drug use soars as well. Greater incarceration rates place a greater burden on the courts, police and prisons, and in fact the bill leaves it open to enforcement. This is one of the real problems of this bill, as it in effect goes after low-level dealers, even for marijuana infractions. The fact is that selling one joint or growing one plant can constitute trafficking under this bill. Just looking at the situation in Canada, we know that Canada spends about 73% of its drug policy budget on enforcement. Only 14% goes to treatment, 7% to research, 2.6% to prevention, and 2.6% to harm reduction. So when we look at that picture and see where the money has gone and where the emphasis has gone, it presents a very troubling situation. Yet, we also know that drug use has continued to rise in Canada.

In 1994, 28% of Canadians reported to have used illicit drugs. By 2004, this number was 45% and we know as well that a Department of Justice report from 2002 concluded that mandatory minimum sentences are the least effective in relation to drug offences. It said: “MMS do not appear to influence drug consumption or drug-related crime in any measurable way. A variety of research methods conclude that treatment-based approaches are more cost effective than lengthy prison terms. MMS are blunt instruments that fail to distinguish between low and high-level, as well as hardcore versus transient drug dealers.”

In addition, we have many other people speaking out about this bill and I would like to read into the record some of the key organizations that expressed grave concern about the bill. Certainly, one notable group, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, has done extensive research, analysis and review on drug policy. In some of its background material, it picked up on one very important point and that is that the Conservatives are peddling this bill as a bill that will deal with drug dealers, that is who they are really going after. Yet, in the HIV/AIDS Legal Network backgrounder, it makes the point that: ” This distinction between drug dealers and drug users is artificial, particularly when harsh minimum sentences are mandated for dealing in any quantity of drugs. The real profiteers in the drug market — those who traffic in large quantities of illegal drugs — distance themselves from more visible drug-trafficking activities and are rarely captured by law enforcement efforts. Instead, it is people who are addicted and involved in small-scale, street-level drug distribution to support their addictions who commonly end up being charged with drug trafficking.” That is exactly what is going to happen with this bill. If we go into the downtown east side in my community, it is the low level folks on the street who are dealers; it is part of the system of how they support their habits. Those are the people who are already most at risk from a health point of view and who are very vulnerable. They are the ones who will be targeted by this bill in terms of the minimum mandatory sentences.

Mandatory Minimums for pot in Bill C-26Mandatory Minimums for pot in Bill C-26There is further evidence. Judge Jerry Paradis is a member of LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. This is quite an incredible organization of former police chiefs, police officers, drug enforcement officers in the United States and Canada including former judges, who are speaking out against the war on drugs. Former Judge Jerry Paradis said: “The evidence unequivocally showed that minimum mandatory sentences have no effect on crime and they carry with them a grab bag of unintended consequences. The true kingpins are the ones who, as the legal network says, are the ones who are able to distance themselves and not be caught by this kind of legislation”.

Retired Quebec Judge John Gomery, someone who we are very familiar with in this House, has also spoken out against this bill and said that “Judges view this kind of legislation as a slap in the face”. He said that judges find that it is an implied criticism when Parliament imposes these mandatory sentences. This is from someone who is very well respected saying that this bill is the wrong approach.

We have a very important organization called Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Its members were on Parliament Hill a couple of months ago doing their first policy and the leaflet that they put out and spoke to us about says “not in our name” because they know again that the propaganda that is being put out by the Conservatives is that this is about helping young people with drug issues. This organization understands that it is really about criminalizing young people. The organization says in its leaflet: “While criminalizing drugs and drug users continues to be justified as necessary to protect our youth, it is our responsibility to eradicate this harmful approach.” It further states: ” The current criminal justice approach to drug use is failing our generation, and our society, and leading to increased harm from drug use. ” Young people are speaking out in their own voices with their own experience about what they believe needs to be done.

There is further evidence that this approach put forward by the Conservatives is a failure. The Health Officers’ Council of British Columbia, which consists of all the public health officers across B.C., wrote a very important paper in 2005, “A Public Health Approach to Drug Control in Canada”. The council states: “Criminal enforcement strategies do not seem to have achieved long-term reductions in either the supply or demand for illegal drugs.” In this paper the council argues: “The harms attendant upon a criminal-prohibition framework for drugs are significant and the benefits modest, at best. A change in policy to a public health approach, where production and distribution can be wrestled from criminal interests and a range of effective harm reduction strategies can be implemented and evaluated, is overdue.”

Further afield, a new report just came out from the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in the United Kingdom. This is a group made up of business people, elected representatives and professionals. It concludes that the current regime, the so-called war on drugs and the emphasis on enforcement are an absolutely failed approach. It has called on the British government to change its policies in regard to drug policy reform. There are many people speaking out.

What I fear most about this bill is that it is taking us down a very dangerous road. It is a road that has already been experienced in the United States where, for example, 2.1 million people are now in U.S. prisons. Eighty per cent of the increase in the federal prison population in the U.S. from 1985 to 1995 was due to drug convictions. By 2004, drug offenders made up 54% of sentenced federal prisoners, up from 25% in 1980. That is what is happening in the United States. That is the direction in which the Conservative government is taking us.

In the United States, ironically, many jurisdictions are now moving away from minimum mandatory sentencing. They can see what an utter failure it has been economically, politically and in terms of dealing with the crisis of drug use in our communities. For example, the U.S. Sentencing Commission concluded that minimum mandatory sentences have failed to deter crime. It reported that only 11% of federal drug defendants are high-level drug dealers. In 2000 California repealed its minimum mandatory sentences for minor drug offences. In 2004 Michigan also repealed its mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug offences. Delaware and Massachusetts are considering doing the same thing. I find it incredible that the government is about to go down this route when in actual fact what it is modeling it on in the United States has already been shown to be a colossal failure in terms of the rate of incarceration. Drug use is still going up. The crime rate is still going up. Therefore, this model of prohibition and enforcement is clearly a failed model.

What we know about this bill, however, is that it is really designed to appeal to the core conservative base. It is really an oversimplification of drug use in Canada. It uses scare tactics to bully people into thinking that marijuana and other substances are the root of violent and organized crime in Canada and that somehow enforcement is going to address that. In reality, this bill would do absolutely nothing to address either of those problems. We believe very much that the Conservatives are taking Canada in the wrong direction. It is a direction that is very expensive. It has no effect on drug use. It will only increase the prison population, creating a new set of issues about overpopulation, health, safety and crime within the prison system.

In British Columbia we have had very difficult situations emerge, such as overcrowding and safety problems for corrections officers. We have seen that just very recently. In fact one of the consequences of this bill, because we are dealing with minimum mandatory sentences, is that we may see an increase in incarceration. The burden of that will be borne at the provincial level. I wonder if the minister has had any discussion with his provincial counterparts that what he is doing with the bill is basically loading the cost on to the provincial systems that are already overcrowded and overburdened. This is a totally failed strategy.

We in the NDP believe that Canada must have a balanced approach to drug use. We have supported the four-pillar approach, which includes prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and yes, there is a role for enforcement, but not the kind of imbalance that we have seen in past history with previous governments and which the current government is now exacerbating. There are many successful models that have worked in Europe. The big city mayors in Canada have adopted this four-pillar approach. It began in Vancouver. It has shown to be successful. Why would we not be investing in that? Why would we not be investing in grassroots harm reduction strategies like Insite, like needle exchanges? Why would we not be investing in real education for young people that actually give people real information about their bodies, about making good choices? I always find it very ironic that we have police officers going into schools doing drug education. Would we send the police into schools to do sex education? I do not think so. They only do drug education because these substances are illegal. What we need to do is focus on a health based approach, because that is the real information that needs to get to young people.

Mandatory minimum sentences, as we see from the evidence and reports both in the United States and Canada, are least likely to work on drug crimes. It begs the question, why is this bill coming forward? If we know it does not work, if we know it is the wrong approach, if we know it is actually going to create a worse situation in the prison system, if we know that it is not going to in any substantive way or even a minimum way deal with drug use and in fact incarceration and crime will probably continue to rise, then why is this bill coming forward?

We have to come to the conclusion that very regrettably, the bill is about a political optic. This is all that the Conservatives have left. It is about creating a climate of fear. I do not doubt that people are very concerned about drug use in local communities. People are very concerned about the dealing that takes place, the impact on schools and so on, but this bill will not address that. We have had more success in my community when the police sat down with the drug users, with community representatives and actually worked out a strategy on how to deal with individual situations in our community. That did more good. They were called the Tuesday meetings at the Carnegie Centre at Main and Hastings. The police, the drug users themselves, community representatives, the city of Vancouver would sit down and work out these issues in terms of what was happening on the street and what the impact was in the community. That produced more dialogue and results than anything else.

We think that this is a terrible bill. The bill will not solve the problems with illicit drugs. It will only create further harm. I really hope that the opposition parties will defeat this bill. We are going to be voting against the bill at second reading. We do not approve of this bill in principle. If the Conservatives want to fix something, maybe they should look at the medical marijuana program, which is in absolute chaos right now. There are huge problems with that program. If they want to actually make some sensible decisions and help people, then they should actually do some good and take a look at what is happening with the medical marijuana program and how people are being severely and negatively impacted by the way the program is run.

I call on the other parties to examine this legislation and defeat it, as it is absolutely the wrong direction for Canada to take.

Ms. Libby Davies (Vancouver East, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, if the Minister of Justice thinks that the bill will solve the issues that he has just identified, he is fooling himself, or else he is deliberately putting forward a program that we know will fail. I actually do not think the Conservatives really care what the consequences are. The fact is that this bill, with minimum mandatory sentences, will not solve any of those issues that he just identified. I agree we have to send the right message, but it sure as heck is not this bill.

In terms of Manitoba, obviously there are elements of the Conservatives’ legislation that have come forward which the province of Manitoba and likely other provinces have supported too. That is not at issue here. At issue here today is this particular bill that is advancing the proposition that somehow minimum mandatory sentencing will address the incredibly serious problems that we have in our local communities. I just want to blow the whistle on that, because this bill is absolutely the wrong direction to take. Look at what is happening in the United States. Have they lowered the rate of drug use? Have they lowered the crime rate? Have they lowered the impact on local communities? Communities are torn apart as a result of incarceration. It has not changed there. It has only gotten worse. That is what the government is now embarking on. It is an absolutely disastrous course to take. It will not work. That is why this bill should be defeated.

Ms. Libby Davies (Vancouver East, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, community policing is a very important aspect of this issue. As the member has pointed out, the Conservatives have broken their promises in bringing in new officers across the country. They should be directed to community-based programs. This is another thing they have put out and then have abandoned.

I want to pick up on the member’s comments about education. If the member spoke to the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy, he would learn that police carrying out drug education programs has been shown to be the least effective way of communicating with young people. The idea of scaring people, telling them that if they use marijuana, they are going to become a crack cocaine addict does not work. Young people know that will not necessarily happen.

We have to face the reality that young people experiment with drugs. The most important thing is to get real information to them about what they are doing is harmful, what choices there are and what they can do to protect themselves to remain healthy. I do not believe that information can be delivered by police officers. It needs to be delivered by people who have a clear understanding of the issue. The idea that we scare people based on enforcement has been shown not to work. In many communities the D.A.R.E. program has been discredited.

I am concerned as well about the direction of the Conservatives’ so-called education program, which they unrolled a couple of months ago. It is more propaganda that really does nothing to engage young people about this serious issue. The government would be much better off to work with Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy and devise a real education program that involves young people, a program that deals with these issues in a realistic way.

Ms. Libby Davies (Vancouver East, NDP): Mr. Speaker, I listened with interest to the comments of the member for Abbotsford. He said that drug offences in certain categories have gone up by 13% and that he believes, and the public believes, that sentencing is too lenient.

I would ask him to actually provide evidence of that and evidence of whether this bill will affect that in any way. We have tried to find research in terms of what are the average penalties across the country. It is very difficult to find out. The member is making these assertions, so I would like him to bring forward the evidence to show where penalties have been too lenient. I certainly will agree that there are particular cases where there have been big disputes in the public and articles in the newspapers that may show that people believe that for a particular offence the sentence of incarceration was not adequate. That certainly happens, but overall he is making the assertion that penalties have been too lenient and that somehow this bill will fix that.

One of the problems with minimum mandatory sentences is that it is more likely that people who are charged would fight those charges because they know that a minimum mandatory will apply, so it will actually tie up more court time and more lawyers, whom he does not seem to like.

I wonder if he can actually show this House and Canadian people the evidence behind what he is saying, not just his opinion, not an anecdote, but hard evidence on the penalty side, and also if he can actually show that this bill will impact the fact that drug offences have gone up by 13%. Where is the evidence that the bill will change this?