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View Bill Blair Profile
Lib. (ON)
View Bill Blair Profile
2017-05-08 11:25 [p.10859]
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss this morning, Bill C-338, an act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which proposes to increase mandatory minimum penalties and imprisonment for the importation and exportation of certain drugs.
The objective of Bill C-338 is to target the importation and exportation of powerful opiates such as fentanyl in Canadian communities, an objective that everyone in the House would agree is laudable. The bill proposes to denounce the importation and exportation of these lethal drugs by increasing the mandatory minimum penalty from one to two years where the quantity of these drugs is less than one kilogram and certain aggravating factors are present. In other cases, the mandatory minimum penalty would be increased from two to three years. The bill also proposes to increase the mandatory minimum penalty from one to two years for the importation or exportation of any amount of a schedule II drug, namely cannabis.
As has been already articulated in the House this morning, we find ourselves in the midst of a national health crisis, and this has put the spotlight on the importance of comprehensive and evidence-based Canadian drug policies.
Canadian communities are feeling the devastating impact from the growing number of opioid-related deaths and overdoses. Canadians deserve nothing less than concerted government action that would have an immediate impact on addressing the influx of opioids in our communities. The policies put in place to respond to this crisis must be informed by performance measurement standards and evidence. These policies must have an immediate impact on reducing the number of these tragic deaths.
This is why I am happy to see that the Government of Canada has instituted a modernized Canadian drugs and substances strategy. The Canadian drugs and substances strategy is focused on prevention, treatment, and enforcement, but it also reinstates harm reduction as a core pillar of Canada's drug policy. The CDSS champions a comprehensive, collaborative, compassionate, and evidence-based approach to drug policy.
In furtherance of this strategy, the Minister of Health introduced Bill C-37, an act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and to make related amendments to other acts, to address the serious and pressing public health issues related to opioids. This legislative response is one important part of the government's comprehensive approach to drug policy in Canada.
Bill C-37 proposes, first, to simplify and streamline the application process for supervised consumption sites; second, to clamp down on illegal pill presses; and, third, to extend the authority of border officers to inspect suspicious small packages coming into Canada. In relation to the last point, extending the Canada Border Services Agency's inspection powers is important, because one standard-size envelope can contain 30 grams of fentanyl, potent enough to cause 15,000 overdoses. These numbers increase exponentially where the substance in question is carfentanil.
In addition, the government has invested over $65 million over five years to support the new CDSS and implement its five-point opioid action plan. This amount is in addition to the $10 million in emergency support that the federal government has provided to the Province of British Columbia to assist in its response to overwhelming numbers of overdose and opioid-related deaths in that province. The five-point opioid action plan is focused on increasing public awareness, supporting better prescribing practices, reducing access to opioids in appropriate cases, supporting better treatment options for patients, and improving Canada's data collection and evidence base to inform more effective drug policies in the future.
That is not all that the government of Canada is doing. Canada is also working closely in collaboration with our international partners, such as the United States and China, to address this crisis. Senior law enforcement and border officials are already working together on a regular basis to curb the flow of illegal opioids across international borders, and I will cite an example. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police has reached an agreement with China's Ministry of Public Security to enhance operational collaboration, identify key areas of concern, and work towards a more coordinated approach to combat fentanyl trafficking originating from China. Such partnerships are a testament to the reality that this epidemic is a very serious international problem which will require international co-operation to fix. Addressing the roots of the opioid crisis demands a whole-of-society response.
This brings us to Bill C-338. Although its stated objective is both timely and I am certain well intentioned, the proposed increase to mandatory minimum penalties is neither likely to contribute to deterring offenders from importing and exporting powerful opiates, nor to have any impact on addressing opioid-related deaths across Canada.
I am not aware of any evidence suggesting that increased mandatory minimum penalties would be effective in reducing the importation or exportation of these lethal drugs, including opiates, into Canada.
Although deterrence is a frequently cited argument of supporters of mandatory minimum penalties, my understanding is that the vast majority of the research in this area shows that these mandatory minimum penalties are ineffective in deterring crime. In fact, the likelihood of being caught represents the far greater deterrent.
In addition to the fact that increasing mandatory minimum penalties would not likely have a meaningful impact on lowering the number of opioid-related deaths in Canada, Bill C-338's proposal to increase mandatory minimum penalties would have a number of adverse effects on the proper administration of the criminal justice system, all of which have been well documented here in Canada and abroad. I am aware of several studies that suggest that mandatory minimum penalties actually lead to far fewer guilty pleas, increased litigation, and an increase in the time required to complete cases.
Given the Supreme Court of Canada's recent decision in Regina v. Jordan, we must be mindful of policies that contribute to excessive delays, which plague our criminal justice system. In fact, last month, when federal, provincial, and territorial ministers responsible for justice met to discuss priority responses to further reduce delays in the criminal justice system, they unanimously identified mandatory minimum penalties as one area of legislative reform that could help in improving court delays. International research also reveals that the use of mandatory minimum penalties to combat the war on drugs in the United States has resulted in far higher costs associated with the dramatic increase in litigation and the use of imprisonment.
I am also concerned about the charter risks associated with increasing mandatory minimum penalties. I am aware of two recent Supreme Court of Canada decisions that clearly state that mandatory minimum penalties that apply to offences that can be committed in various ways under a broad array of circumstances and by a wide range of people are constitutionally vulnerable. Based on these rulings, I am concerned that the mandatory minimum penalties proposed in this bill are vulnerable, because they could apply to offenders who have committed a crime for which the proposed mandatory minimum penalty would be unjust.
Bill C-338's increased mandatory minimum penalties are not necessary to signal to Canadian judges that these offences should be treated seriously. Canadian judges, in appropriate cases, already exercise their discretion to impose significantly higher sentences in excess of the proposed mandatory minimum penalties. For example, in Regina v. Cunningham, the Court of Appeal for Ontario confirmed that the appropriate sentencing range for first-offender drug couriers who smuggle large quantities of cocaine should be in the range of six to eight years' imprisonment. In that decision, the court, mindful that many drug couriers are easy prey for commercial drug traffickers, noted that such concerns must give way to the need to protect society from the untold grief and misery occasioned by the illicit use of hard drugs. In fact, it increased a three-year sentence imposed to five years' imprisonment and stated clearly that it is the responsibility of the courts to warn would-be couriers, in no uncertain terms, that they will pay a heavy price for choosing to import large quantities of hard drugs for quick, personal gain.
More recently, the British Columbia Court of Appeal, in Regina v. Smith, noted that given the development of a public health crisis surrounding opioids, a higher sentencing range was appropriate for certain trafficking offences under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
I am confident that the courts will impose just sentences based on the facts before them. On the whole, I believe that the approach advanced by the government is the right one. Changes to increase mandatory minimum penalties may seem on their face attractive, but they simply will not work to address the public health emergency. For all the reasons I have noted, the government will not support Bill C-338.
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