Libby Speaking out Against Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

House of Commons

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.

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 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.

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.