Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to add my thoughts and voice on Bill C-338. I would like to thank the member for Markham—Unionville for this bill. I know that his intentions are good with respect to this bill and that he, like all members in this House, is concerned about the rash of overdose deaths that are spiking across the country, especially from fentanyl.
Unfortunately, the bill before us does nothing to address the phenomenon of drug use and sees fit only to increase the punishment, through mandatary minimums, for those who are engaged in the import and export of certain substances listed under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
Bill C-338 would amend subsection 6(3) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to punish those who import schedule I or schedule II substances. Schedule I substances include opium, codeine, morphine, cocaine, fentanyl, and of course, the deadly carfentanil, while schedule II is known mainly for cannabis and its derivatives.
Specifically, under paragraph 6(3)(a), the bill would make an amendment so that there would be an increase from a minimum punishment of one year to two years' imprisonment for not more than a kilogram of a schedule I substance or for any amount of a schedule II substance. Under paragraph 6(3)(a.1), the bill would make an amendment so that the minimum punishment was increased from two years' to three years' imprisonment for importing and exporting a schedule I substance that is more than a kilogram.
Increasing mandatory punishments is a favourite legislative pastime of the Conservative party, and this was especially true under the previous Harper government.
The opioid crisis Canada is experiencing is a national emergency that had its origins in my home province of British Columbia. It is a complex phenomenon, a problem the Conservative legacy of supposed tough-on-crime legislation has been ineffective in stemming.
The Supreme Court of Canada has been particularly critical of some of the mandatory minimums, from the previous government, it has struck down. In April 2015, the Supreme Court dealt the Harper government's tough-on-crime agenda a serious blow by striking down a law requiring mandatory minimum sentences for crimes involving prohibited guns. The six-three ruling, penned by the chief justice, took aim at the government's keeping-Canadians-safe justification for tough sentencing laws. In her ruling, she said,
The government has not established that mandatory minimum terms of imprisonment act as a deterrent against gun-related crimes.... Empirical evidence suggests that mandatory minimum sentences do not, in fact, deter crimes....
In April 2016, the court ruled six-three that a mandatory minimum sentence of one year in prison for a drug offence violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The court ruled that the sentence cast too wide a net over a wide range of potential conduct and stated in its ruling:
If Parliament hopes to maintain mandatory minimum sentences for offences that cast a wide net, it should consider narrowing their reach so that they only catch offenders that merit that mandatory minimum sentences. In the alternative, Parliament could provide for judicial discretion to allow for a lesser sentence where the mandatory minimum would be grossly disproportionate and would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
Bill C-338 stems from a belief that we can arrest and incarcerate our way out of the problem of drugs in our society. However, if we look at the facts, they show otherwise. Police-reported drug offences in 2014, after the Conservative tough-on-crime legislation from the year before, showed that meth possession went up 38%, heroin possession went up 34%, MDMA possession increased by 28%, meth trafficking went up by 17%, and heroin trafficking went up by 12%. It is clear that the Conservative agenda on mandatory minimums for drug crimes has not decreased drug use across the country, and it is evident that we need effective solutions now.
The Conservatives recently copied the NDP's call to declare the opioid overdose crisis a national health emergency, yet the Conservatives blocked our attempt to move Bill C-37 swiftly through the House in December, which would have saved lives faster.
If we look at some of the main points in Bill C-37, it would simplify the process of applying for an exemption that would allow for supervised consumption, which has been shown to help people take care of their issues. It would prohibit the importation of designated devices, which are used in manufacturing drugs. It would have expanded “the offence of possession, production, sale, or importation of anything knowing that it would be used to produce or traffic in methamphetamine”. These were clear-cut solutions to a problem our province has been long suffering through and that is now making its way across Canada.
I would like to read some quotes from validators of our position.
Dr. Virani, who is a medical director at Metro City Medical Clinic, in Edmonton, said:
I have yet to meet a police officer who has said they can arrest their way out of this problem, and I have yet to meet a judge who's said that he can incarcerate his way out of the problem, and I certainly hope that health isn't thinking [they can] ignore-and-wait their way out of this problem, because it is clear it is getting worse and worse.
British Columbia's provincial health officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, said:
Simply prohibiting and increasing penalties without resources to support and educate haven't been terribly effective. [But] you need to do a number of things to limit the supply of drugs on the street.
I am disappointed and frustrated that the Liberals' promise of a review of mandatory minimums is not complete. It was last year that the Supreme Court handed down its decision on the Jordan case, which was in response to decades of inadequate resources for our justice system from successive federal and provincial governments. We now have a situation where serious criminal charges are either being stayed or withdrawn.
While I appreciate that the Minister of Justice has recently met with her provincial counterparts, I sincerely hope that the review of mandatory minimums is completed soon and in a comprehensive way so that we do not have a continued piecemeal approach to justice legislation created by private members' bills, like the one before us today.
Canada is currently experiencing an unprecedented opioid overdose crisis. Illicit drug overdoses claimed the lives of 914 people in B.C. alone in 2016, making it the deadliest overdose year on record and representing an increase of nearly 80% from the year before.
A significant spike in drug-related overdoses in 2016 prompted B.C.'s provincial health officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, to declare a public health emergency for the first time in the province's history.
Under the Harper government's anti-drug strategy, $190 million was budgeted for treatment alone in the first five years of the strategy, from 2007 to 2012, but only $77.9 million was actually spent. The total treatment budget for the next five years of the strategy was cut to $150 million. However, this represents $40 million more than the Liberal budget has allocated for its entire Canadian drugs and substances strategy. How much longer do we have to wait for the current government?
I will now move on to my conclusion. We need real measures that deal with the problem of drugs, rather than tying judges' hands in sentencing laws in order to appear tough. A sentencing judge should retain the discretion to sentence within the limits set by Parliament. Judges must be able to weigh all the evidence and decide on a fair sentence that fits the crime. Mandatory minimums take away judges' ability to do just that.
I sincerely fail to see how increasing jail time by a year for those who import or export schedule I or schedule II substances is in any way going to contribute to a meaningful reduction in drug use in our country. It is for that reason I will be voting against Bill C-338.
We need the federal government to take leadership on the opioid crisis now. Mayors and premiers have been asking for help dealing with drug overdoses. It is time that we all work together to bring forth effective policies to tackle this national crisis.