Madam Speaker, I am in support of Bill C-22. Bill C-22, for those interested in the subject, comes in three parts. It would address mandatory minimum sentences in a serious way; it would restore judicial discretion as it relates to conditional sentencing and an emphasis on restorative justice; and the third piece is an emphasis on treating drug use as a health issue, and I will have more to say about that in a bit.
I want to start by focusing on mandatory minimum sentences with a simple premise that is overwhelmingly supported by the evidence, which is that mandatory minimum sentences do not work. They are ineffective; they do not deter crime. I am the member of Parliament for Beaches—East York, and we were deeply impacted by the Danforth shooting a few years ago. If mandatory minimum sentences could prevent another Danforth shooting from happening, I would support them, but they would not, and instead they disproportionately and negatively impact racialized Canadians. We see the numbers. We see, of Black Canadians, who represent 3% of the population, 9% are imprisoned. We see, of indigenous people, who represent 5% of the population, 30% are imprisoned. There are obviously instances where crimes are so abhorrent that retribution demands a lifetime in prison, and that obviously accords with our sense of justice, but we have seen cases before our courts, and there are obviously any number of hypotheticals that lawyers will devise, where mandatory minimum sentences do not fit the crime and judicial discretion is important. We have seen courts render these mandatory minimums unconstitutional because of their unfairness. They are not only ineffective, but unfair.
It is the same with conditional sentencing, that notion of effectiveness but also fairness. Punishments and remedies need to take into account context. There are reasons of fairness, and I mentioned reasons of fairness as it relates to racial justice, but also I have already heard a question from a Conservative colleague emphasizing public safety, so let us talk about public safety. Unless offenders are sentenced to life or something close to it, they will, as a simple fact, be released into our community. If we do not focus on restorative justice, rehabilitation and reintegration, we put our communities at greater risk. The evidence is there. It is as simple as that. If we care about public safety first and foremost, we ought to care about restorative justice.
I want to move to, for the remainder of my comments, the third part of Bill C-22, which is the reform, in a more sensible way, of our drug policy laws. This is roundly accepted by anyone who has studied the issue, but the so-called “war on drugs” is an abject failure. I will read from the Global Commission on Drug Policy. They write, “the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that repressive strategies will not solve the drug problem, and that the war on drugs has not, and cannot, be won.” The long-term answer is regulation, that all drugs should be, in many cases, strictly regulated according to their respective harms. Caffeine is different from morphine and they should be regulated, of course, differently. Again, this is the view of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a commission made up of experts and former world leaders who have been deeply impacted by the failings of the war on drugs. They write:
Regulation and management of risky products and behaviors is a key function of government authorities across the world. It is the norm in almost all areas of policy and law – except drug policy. ... In the field of public health, when compared with policy responses to other risky behaviors – such as dangerous sports, unhealthy diets or unsafe sex – it is punitive drug prohibitions that are the “radical” policy response, not regulation. Drugs should be regulated not because they are safe, but precisely because they are risky.
We are not going to get there tomorrow, so on the road to that goal, let us first take stock of where we are and where we will go from here, realistically. In taking stock, we can look over the last five or six years. We have as a government regulated cannabis, a real model for the world. We have expanded harm reduction options, including safe consumption sites across this country to save lives. We are in the midst of an opioid crisis, and we know that the benefits of safe consumption sites have been proven and that they save lives. We have also increased money for treatment options for the provinces.
We have implemented safer supply pilot initiatives, including here in the east end. South Riverdale just received funding to renew its safe supply pilot for another two years. Again, this will save lives.
We have established new guidelines for prosecutors in relation to the simple possession of drugs and the prosecution of simple possession of drugs. In practice, for those interested in the numbers, from 2014 to 2018 we saw drug possession prosecutions cut in half, from 13,678 to 6,374. Now, we unquestionably need to build on that progress, and that brings me to the third part of Bill C-22, which is nearly a cut-and-paste of a private member's bill I introduced in February of last year.
To go even further back to the fall of 2019, in the midst of an election I was at Hope United Church here in the east end of Toronto and I was asked this question: If you had the opportunity to introduce a private member's bill, what is the first private member's bill would I introduce? I very quickly said that I had had a bill in the last Parliament to reform our drug policy laws and to treat drug use as a health issue, and I would revisit that issue. Early in 2020, I introduced two bills in this Parliament to that end, and I never expected that one of those bills would be picked up so quickly as a government bill in an almost identical fashion.
Now, the bill is not perfect, and I said in the course of my speech on my private member's bill that I would like to see full decriminalization. I do not think that there should be any penalty. There should be no intervention other than a positive, voluntary health intervention for people who use drugs. These are the people we want to help, not the people we want to punish. However, I also recognize the reality of the ability to move a private member's bill forward, and I want to make difference in the law.
The elements in Bill C-22 as they relate to drug policy are not perfect either, but they unquestionably will make a significant difference. The bill would make it virtually impossible for a prosecution of simple possession to proceed successfully. It would not give discretion to police, as they have discretion already, and it would not give discretion to prosecutors, as they have discretion already, but it would significantly fetter their discretion in accordance with evidence-based principles, which are simply worth reading from the bill. These principles are:
(a) problematic substance use should be addressed primarily as a health and social issue;
(b) interventions should be founded on evidence-based best practices and should aim to protect the health, dignity and human rights of individuals who use drugs and to reduce harm to those individuals, their families and their communities;
(c) criminal sanctions imposed in respect of the possession of drugs for personal use can increase the stigma associated with drug use and are not consistent with established public health evidence;
(d) interventions should address the root causes of problematic substance use...; and
(e) judicial resources are more appropriately used in relation to offences that pose a risk to public safety.
Now, there are real challenges to police and prosecutorial discretion, but the proposed system, if implemented well, is not so far away from the Portugal model that we hear many advocates of decriminalization call for. In this model, police remain first responders in many cases, and dissuasion panels have significant discretion to mete out different remedies, including some that are quite punitive.
I have spoken with Bryan Larkin, chief of police for the Waterloo area, and he has helped to lead efforts. I want to credit the chiefs of police for really pushing for decriminalization and a more sensible drug policy. I can tell members that with prosecutors and chiefs of police on board, we now unquestionably need resources from the government to expand treatment options and health services for the provinces.
There is a real opportunity with Bill C-22 to make a meaningful difference and to effectively end the war on drugs. My preference would be to simply delete section 4 of the CDSA, which is the preference of the Global Commission on Drug Policy as well.
It is important to remember that of the 250 million people around the world who use drugs, 10% are problematic cases. Therefore, the idea of throwing the book at people and that people who use drugs ought to be criminalized is significantly divorced from the evidence. We need to replace the criminalization and punishment of people who use drugs with the offer of health and treatment services.