Libby Davies And The NDP Speak Out Against Bill C-15

Bill C-15 is a government Bill calling for mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes, including the possession of one marijuana plant if it is deemed to be for the purpose of trafficking. Libby Davies and the NDP oppose this Bill. Mandatory minimums have been an expensive failure in the United States, divert needed resources from prevention, treatment, and harm reduction measures, and further criminalize what must be recognized as a public health issue.

Libby (MP – Vancouver East) and her colleagues spoke out against this Bill in the House of Commons today. Below is an excerpt of Libby’s speech. For the full text please go to the March 27, 2009 House of Commons debates at

House of Commons
March 27, 2009

Ms. Libby Davies (Vancouver East, NDP): Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to be up first on this Friday morning to speak to Bill C-15, which is mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes and amends the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

This is a very important debate on the bill. It is one of the bills that the Conservative government, with the support of the Liberals, had wanted to rush through the House with no debate. We think the bill needs debate, because it is really at a juncture where it is telling us what direction Canada will go in terms of its drug policy. From that point of view it is a very significant bill and it deserves full public debate and input. I hope that will happen at committee as well. We need to hear from witnesses and it is very important that we be on the record in terms of our position around the bill.

I represent the riding of Vancouver East and, as many people know, it is a riding that has been hit very hard with the seriousness of drug issues. For a number of years when I was first elected that the number of overdoses in the downtown east side was the leading cause of death. It was horribly alarming. It was the number one public health issue where people were dying needlessly, though these are preventable deaths, from drug overdoses because of prohibition and because of the illegal drug market, the black market, where people were buying things on the street and they do not know what they were. The level of overdoses was just horrific, and the chaos, the pain and the suffering that was caused in the downtown east side.

That still goes on today to some extent, but over the last 10 years, because of enormous efforts by the community and indeed right across Canada, particularly by drug users themselves who began to speak out about their own experience, the situation began to change.

It is very easy in our society to vilify and demonize drug users. It is very easy to label people as “criminals” and to label a drug user as a trafficker. In fact, under the law, even passing a joint to someone would be characterized as trafficking.

Not only are we trying to overcome the severe health and safety impact in terms of drug use in the downtown east side, but we’re also trying to deal with the terrible stigma and stereotyping that surrounds drug users.

The fact is that drug use exists at all levels of society. There are lawyers, professionals, engineers and all kinds of people who use drugs, whether medical or non-medical. If it is a prescription, that might be a substance use problem as well, whether a person gets it from a doctor or gets it on the street. It may be that a person is using drugs for recreational purposes, maybe marijuana.

It exists at all levels of society, but it is very much a class issue, because the enforcement regime that we have in this country, similar to the United States, is very much levelled at visible drug use on the street, basically people who are poor, people who are facing that stigma and often people facing challenges of mental health.

In Vancouver, for example, at the institution of Riverview, people who were literally sent out on the street with no support ended up in the downtown east side with very poor housing and no resources. People, in effect, starting self-medicating and suddenly found themselves in this terrible environment of being “a criminal” and being harassed and chased by police and maybe arrested.

It is very much an issue that pertains to the poorest in our society who are involved in drug use and the enforcement, primarily in this country, as in the United States, has been levelled at those people.

About 73% of federal dollars on drug policy in Canada go toward enforcement. Only 2.6% goes to prevention, only 2.6% goes to harm reduction and about 14% to treatment. That is a very uneven balance.

For example, when the Auditor General audited drug policy in this country a few years ago, she remarked upon this and posed a question: What was the impact? What was the value? What were we getting for such a high emphasis on an enforcement and interdiction regime when drug use is actually going up in Canada?

It might interest people to know that in 1994, 28% of Canadians reported having used illicit drugs, but by 2004 that number was at 45%. Certainly, the policies we have had that have been so focused on the criminal regime and the criminalization of drug users have been completely ineffective. We only have to look south of the border, where the so-called war on drugs has unleashed billions and billions of dollars and where we see massive numbers of people incarcerated, to see what a failure it is.

I was very interested to see Hillary Clinton talking about how the war on drugs in Mexico has been a failure in the paper yesterday. It is first time the U.S. administration has talked about this. There was a headline saying that they failed. This has been the wrong approach. We are hoping very much with the new administration in the U.S. that things will begin to change.

I wanted to give that backdrop because what I find most disturbing is that Bill C-15 was brought in at an earlier Parliament as Bill C-26 and died on the order paper. It does raise the question of how urgent this was for the Conservatives when they brought it in so late and just let it go because they wanted to have an election. However, Bill C-15 is completely focused around the premise that mandatory minimum sentencing is going to work for drug crimes. That is what the bill is about. It is not a bill about broader enforcement regimes. It is about mandatory minimum sentencing. It does pose the question and I believe we have a responsibility to answer this question as to whether or not the evidence shows that mandatory minimum sentencing will actually be an effective tool.

I have done a fair amount of research on this as the drug policy critic for our party. Because of my involvement in Vancouver East and the downtown eastside, I have to say I have become very involved in this issue. I have worked very closely with drug users and I have learned a lot from what this experience is about, what happens to people under the current regime and what it is that we need to change.

I am deeply concerned that the government is embarking on a very significant departure. Canada did have what was called the four-pillar approach, which was enforcement, harm reduction, prevention and treatment. That was adopted under a previous government. There was always an imbalance and an overemphasis on enforcement, but at least that four-pillar approach was there. I have to say that it actually began in Vancouver as a grassroots, bottom-up approach and then spread across the country.

This bill would take a radical departure from that four-pillar approach by emphasizing the enforcement regime even more, taking it to some greater lengths by bringing in a regime of mandatory minimum sentencing. I think this is a huge mistake. There is no question that it is the core of the Conservative government’s agenda around crime. It is about the political optics. I have called it the politics of fear. People are concerned about drug use and crime in their communities. They are particularly concerned about young people being involved in using drugs. However, this bill will not deal with that. This bill will not change that situation. In fact, the evidence from both Canada and the United States shows us that the opposite will happen. It will only make the situation worse.

I want to note in the record that a Department of Justice study in 2002 concluded that mandatory minimum sentences are the least effective in relation to drug offences. The report said:

“Mandatory minimum sentences do not appear to influence drug consumption or drug-related crime in any measurable way. A variety of research methods concludes 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.”

When one looks at what is going on in the United States, where mandatory minimum sentencing began, there is now a whole movement away from mandatory minimum sentencing. We know that in California in 2000, they repealed some of their mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for drug offences. In fact, California is now considering regulating marijuana. In 2004, Michigan repealed some of their MMSs. Delaware and Massachusetts are undergoing similar legislative reviews.

There is a whole history of reports in the U.S. in the American Bar Association and the U.S. Census Committee. I will not go at length into those reports, but suffice it to say that there has been a huge amount of research done on this and I find it most ironic that the Conservative government, for the last couple of years, when it announced its so-called drug strategy in 2007, was launching on this course of following the United States, when what is actually happening in reality is that the war on drugs in the United States has now been shown to be a colossal failure.

I found it interesting that at the new president’s town hall meeting online yesterday, I am sure people have read today, most of the questions had to do with marijuana, and saying to the president that it would be a good idea to regulate, legalize and actually provide a proper source of revenue, instead of allowing this to be so controlled in the black market. This is what happened in prohibition during the 1930s.

Obviously even in the United States there has been a massive shift in public opinion, and what I find is that it is elected representatives who are the ones who are the most far behind on this. We are actually afraid to take this issue on. In many regards the public is way ahead of us. The public understands that the war on drugs has been a failure. It has been a colossal failure in terms of the human costs, in terms of economic costs, and in terms of public policy. We are the ones who are afraid to admit the reality of what the war on drugs and prohibition has done.

I find it just totally unacceptable that in that context, we are now moving in this country to a regime that will bring in mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, when everybody else is saying this does not work, that it is a failure and we have to take an approach that is focused on public health, that is focused on regulation, that is focused on real and honest education, especially for young people, and is focused on providing treatment. None of those things are happening at an adequate level in this country.

I know what the line will be of the Conservatives who are debating the bill. They are going to get up and say, “This is about getting those terrible gangs, the big crime dealers, the big drug lords and all of that”. Again the research shows us that that is not what happens.

In fact because in this bill they have included provisions around drug treatment courts, I think it is further evidence that what they will really be doing is focusing on what is called the low-level offenders. This is where mandatory minimums do not work. It is not a deterrence.

In fact what it will do is completely create chaos in our judicial system, in the court system. We know that for any mandatory minimums that are two years or less when people end up in the provincial court system, we are now going to be facing a huge overload in the provincial court system. Do the provinces know that? I kind of wonder if they realize what is coming down the pipe here.

We will also see situations where people are more likely to plead not guilty because they know that they will be facing a mandatory minimum.

This idea that we are going up to the kingpins just does not play out, because those are the individuals who are in the best position to negotiate with prosecution officials and so on. Again history has shown us that with enforcement, the easy pickings are basically people who are low-level dealers. They are often users themselves. This bill will be so punitive in terms of individual people, but the worst thing is it will not change the outcome.

If the Conservatives are trying to peddle a line here that this bill is going to solve the problem, it will not. It is actually going to make it worse, so I feel I have a responsibility, representing a riding like East Vancouver where I have worked very closely on this issue, to actually speak the truth about this issue.

I know others of my colleagues as well have gotten up and spoken out loud and clear, and will do so today, I know that we put ourselves out there as targets for the propaganda and the machine that comes from the other side that we are soft on crime, that we are advocating for drug use, that we are advocating for whatever.

That is simply not true. I have never supported drug use. I am personally very anti-drug use. I have seen the harm it does. However, I understand that prohibition has driven people to becoming criminals.

We dealt with the marijuana decriminalization bill. I know there are members in the House who were on the committee. We heard there were 600,000 Canadians who had a record for possession of marijuana. Why are we not at least beginning there and saying we will decriminalize and then legalize marijuana? We would begin at a place where there is strong public support. We should change the regime we have.

The public attitude is shifting, also within the media. Since the crime bills have come in, following the debate in the media has been fascinating. There are lots of media commentators, people writing columns, experts being quoted.

Retired Mr. Justice John Gomery spoke about Bill C-26, but it is the same bill. He said, “This legislation basically shows a mistrust of the judiciary to impose proper sentences when people come before them”.

Thomas Kerr from the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, said:
If Canada wants to fulfill its mission of reducing the most severe harms associated with illicit drug use, steps must now be taken to implement a truly evidence-based national drug strategy rather than shovelling millions of dollars towards these failed programs.

A retired judge from B.C., Jerry Paradis, is a spokesperson for an incredible organization, LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. I went to a conference in New Orleans last year. I saw members of LEAP, including current police officers as well as retired police chiefs and officers, and members of the judiciary, who were now working to alert us to how dangerous prohibition is and what its consequences have been.

Retired judge Jerry Paradis said, “MMSs are a great motivator for trials, jamming up the courts. Unless a deal is struck, a charge carrying a minimum sentence will be fought tooth and nail”.

Barbara Yaffe from the Vancouver Sun is not seen as a left-wing commentator. She is very much her own person and often comes out with terrific stuff. What does she have to say about it? In a February article, she wrote about gangs. She says:

Because at the root of the mayhem is the drug trade. And while the state can outlaw a substance, it cannot eliminate its use. Prohibition proved that nearly a century ago. As long as drugs are illegal, there will be underground activity of the sort that spawns drug gangsters.

I have many media stories along the same lines. There has been a significant shift.

In speaking to the bill, I feel this is a critical point: are we going to go down this path where we say that tougher laws and enforcement are going to solve drug issues in local communities?

The Conservative members have clearly said that. I am very interested to see what the Liberal caucus does with this bill. I hope that we can defeat it. I hope we can say it is not the right way to go.

The NDP does not think the bill should go through. It is not based on good public policy. It is going to be harmful and expensive. It is really time to embark on a common sense approach and accept the overwhelming evidence that the war on drugs has caused more death, pain, harm and crime than we can bear. It is time to stop it.

I do not think that is going to happen overnight. However, let us at least have the courage to see what has failed and see the alternatives. We could begin with marijuana, real education, and look to decriminalization or even legalization, or we could continue on the tragic course of playing on people’s fear and trying to convince people that tougher laws will make it all go away. It will not. Let us say no to the bill. Let us adopt a public health approach and do the right thing.

Mr. Richard Harris (Cariboo—Prince George, CPC): Mr. Speaker, let us be clear on what has failed. The member for Vancouver East talked about the Liberals’ advocacy of the so-called four pillar approach of enforcement, harm reduction, prevention, treatment. That has failed. That is why the Conservative government is taking a much harder stance fighting the smuggling of drugs, the trafficking of drugs, because what the member for Vancouver East and what the previous Liberal government supported has failed miserably.

As a matter of fact, the former chief coroner and mayor of Vancouver back in the early 1990s publicly said that we should give up on the war on drugs, that we cannot win it, so let us walk away and let the drug peddlers and the gangsters have it because we cannot win it. The Conservative government will never give up on the war against drugs. The member for Vancouver East has seen all of that misery in the downtown area of her riding, those unfortunate souls who have been sucked into the day-to-day use of drugs by the drug lords and the gangsters who are bringing drugs in such huge amounts into this country and selling them through all of their agencies down to the street level.

I am surprised that the member for Vancouver East is telling us not to worry and not get tough on crime, let us not try to nail the big kingpin drug pushers and let us not try to stop the violence. There have been over 30 drug related and gang related murders in Vancouver, a new number that is threatening to escalate to unheard of proportions in violence and murder. The member and her colleagues are still standing every day and saying that the Conservative government is being much too hard on these criminals. Nonsense.

By the way, President Obama, last night in answer to callers, said that he did not think it was a good idea to legalize marijuana. The hon. member did not mention that.

Ms. Libby Davies: Mr. Speaker, as I said, I was waiting for the pointing fingers. I would like to invite the member to my riding.

Mr. Richard Harris: I have been to your riding.

Ms. Libby Davies: I bet you did not sit down with a group like VANDU, Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. You probably talked to the police, which is fine, but I bet you did not sit down and talk to drug users and find out why an organization like Insite is so–

Mr. Richard Harris: I have spent time in your riding.

The Speaker: Members must address their remarks through the Speaker.

Ms. Libby Davies: Thank you, Mr. Speaker, speaking to you, I will bet the member met with police. I bet he did not sit down with a group like VANDU and find out actually what that experience is.

When the member speaks about what is going on in Vancouver, I agree it is horrific. I have had lots of emails and phone calls from people and I spoke about this yesterday when I was debating Bill C-14, but to me this is further evidence that the regime we have had, the so-called war on drugs, the Conservatives are so committed to, obsessively, with blinkers, despite the evidence, is failing.

In terms of the four pillar approach, I have to say every society and every country around the world that has made progress dealing with drug use is because they have adopted policies under the four pillar approach. To say that it is a failure, I guess the member has not properly researched this or looked at what is going on. But the four pillar approach based on treatment, harm reduction, prevention and enforcement, which is a part of it, is absolutely what is going on internationally. Even the UN is recognizing that harm reduction is a very important component of its drug policies. There was recently a conference at the UN.

I heard what President Obama said. He is obviously not ready to do that, but my point was that the American public overwhelming is saying “stop this madness”. I think President Obama will eventually get that message and I am pretty sure he will begin to make changes.

Mr. Alan Tonks (York South—Weston, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, I do not doubt for a moment the sincerity of the member for Vancouver East in the overview she has given with respect to coming to grips with the issues and whether it is a more liberal approach to the issue of illicit drugs, a higher regime in terms of what this bill suggests, or whether it is to be more lenient.

I was not going to ask a question but her statement that prohibition has driven people to become criminals has touched a sensitive nerve with respect to an issue that is evolving in Ontario and Quebec. Over 50% of cigarette sales are illicit in Quebec and Ontario and it is getting worse. Biker bangs are taking over the delivery system. They are going to a dial a smoke system, which is an open and flagrant violation of the existing legal regime. Children are being exposed to the health implications and cost implications. Even though we have a legal system for smokes in Ontario and Quebec, that is what is happening.

I would like the member to compare that to what she is putting forward as a resolution. I would like her to tell me if she thinks the premise she is operating from, given the experience with respect to what is happening in Ontario and Quebec, is the right approach to the availability and use of drugs.

Ms. Libby Davies: Mr. Speaker, there has been a lot of research done on organized crime and gangs. I have done some of that research and looked at material. I do not think there is any question that organized crime will always find some element, whether it is dealing with legal substances, tobacco, cigarettes or alcohol. That always exists. However, whenever something is completely prohibited, as we saw with alcohol in the 1930s, it creates a regime where organized crime is allowed to flourish because of the profits involved. That is what has happened here.

It is not that regulation or legalization of certain substances would close down all of organized crime overnight; that would always still be an issue. However, it would dramatically change the equilibrium in terms of where the resources are used. Maybe we would be able to focus more on organized crime instead of using the massive resources which right now are more focused on the low-level users and dealers.

I think it is a matter of a balance of public policy. Again, I come back to the point that after 100 years of prohibition, look at what we have. We have to accept the reality that drug use exists in our society. Let us educate people. Let us provide treatment where it is needed. Let us have effective enforcement. The idea of mandatory minimums is not going to improve it. It will only make it worse.

Ms. Nicole Demers (Laval, BQ): Mr. Speaker, I listened carefully to my hon. colleague from Vancouver East and I would like to congratulate her on her very eloquent, thorough speech outlining all the problems associated with drugs. She is quite right.

I wonder if my colleague can explain the inconsistency in the government’s position. The government claims that it wants to protect Canadians, not only from people who sell drugs, but also from people who use drugs.

The government is cutting funding to places like Vancouver’s InSite, creating committees to determine where people who are ill can smoke their medical marijuana and doing nothing for our young people, while at the same time, it wants to grant people the right to use unregistered long guns.

I think—

The Speaker: Order, please. I am sorry to have to interrupt the hon. member for Laval, but her time has run out. The hon. member for Vancouver East has time for a short reply.

Ms. Libby Davies: Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague who I know spoke very eloquently yesterday on the gang bill.

The government does not have a coherent policy. Even though programs and facilities have been incredibly effective, the government has done everything it can to try to shut them down. The member mentioned Insite, the safe injection facility, in the downtown east side. The amount of political capital the government has tried to put into closing down Insite is unbelievable when nationally and internationally it has been seen as a success.

It has given lip service to the idea of treatment and prevention. We heard one of the ministers yesterday rattling on about a little project here or there but if we look at the numbers and the evidence, there is no question that the government has put all of its resources, basically, into enforcement. It is now going to accelerate that through the mandatory minimums and has really done nothing to support treatment, prevention, education and harm reduction.

– Read the whole debate in the 40th Parliament, 2nd Session Hansard – Friday, March 27, 2009.