Tuesday in the House of Commons, a Standing Committee on Health report from October 2014 was debated in the House. The report was called “Marijuana’s Health Risks and Harms” – a title, which, from the very beginning, shows the bias of the Conservative majority members on the committee, who unilaterally set the scope for the study to match their partisan, preconceived beliefs about marijuana.
I had the occasion to rise in the House yesterday to speak against this report, underscoring the need for an evidence-based approach to studying marijuana from a health perspective. My speech and questions to the Minister of Health and other Members of Parliament is below for your interest.
I also want to share with you the NDP Minority Report, which was appended to the original report from the Health Committee.
This NDP Minority Report clearly lays out the NDP approach to Marijuana Policy.
An NDP government would: “Establish an independent commission with a broad mandate, including safety and public health, to consult Canadians on all aspects of the non-medical use of marijuana and to provide guidance to Parliament on the institution of an appropriate regulatory regime to govern such use.”
I invite you to read the NDP Marijuana Policy at the following link, as well as check out the debate below in the House:
OFFICIAL REPORT (HANSARD)
Tuesday, June 2, 2015
Speaker: The Honourable Andrew Scheer
Committees of the House
Mr. Terence Young (Oakville, CPC) moved:
That the sixth report of the Standing Committee on Health, presented on Tuesday, October 21, 2014, be concurred in.
Ms. Libby Davies (Vancouver East, NDP): Mr. Speaker, I am glad we are having this debate today on the report from the Standing Committee on Health, which was produced in October 2014, because it is a very important subject in terms of public policy as it relates to marijuana. The first thing I want to say is that the report we are debating is unfortunately completely biased.
The name of the report is “Marijuana’s Health Risks and Harms”. We can see from its title that in looking at the subject of marijuana, the majority of the members of the committee, the government members, were only interested in building a political case for themselves to show what they believe to be risks and harms. From day one, the study and the report were very suspect, because they were actually not based on evidence and a scientific approach in terms of how we should be conducting studies by standing committees of Parliament.
We heard from a number of witnesses. It is regrettable that the government members tried to prevent witnesses from coming forward who hold evidence-based views on marijuana based on a health approach. It was very difficult to get that point of view across in the committee. However, I am pleased to say that we were able to get some witnesses who gave us a very balanced picture of what is taking place in terms of public policy. I would say that the approach that was put forward, and certainly the approach the NDP favours, is an approach that focuses on health promotion and on public education and safety. We need to have an approach to marijuana that is more balanced. That is something that did not result from the study and this report.
We produced what is called a dissenting or minority report for this study. Our number one recommendation to the Government of Canada was that it is essential to pursue a public health approach to marijuana that is focused on education, and where necessary, treatment and harm reduction. This is something we heard from witnesses. It is something that is sensible.
We understand that there is a broad consensus now in this country that the Conservatives’ approach of a war on drugs and prohibition has been a catastrophic failure economically, socially, and through the justice system. Giving people criminal records, having a zero-tolerance policy, and denying the reality of what is going on in terms of marijuana in this country is something that is producing more harm than good. That is the Conservatives’ approach.
We have a different approach in the NDP. It is based on focusing on public health and health promotion.
We heard from a number of witnesses, like Dr. Evan Wood, Dr. Tony George, the Canadian Public Health Association, Philippe Lucas, and Dr. Perry Kendall. These are all eminent doctors and scientists who have actually studied this issue, and they all told us that a public health approach to the non-medical use of drugs is necessary, and in fact critical, to minimize the risks and the harms.
I spoke a bit earlier and questioned the minister about the fact that very limited research has gone on. We heard at the committee that approximately 50% of people who use medical marijuana do so to relieve chronic pain. This came from Dr. Perry Kendall, who was a very credible witness. We also heard from Veterans Affairs Canada that the department pays for medical marijuana for the treatment of PTSD in veterans. The witnesses all said that we need to have more research on medical marijuana, but it has been very difficult to do so because of the approach of the government.
I find it contradictory that on the one hand, the Conservatives are willing to encourage research to look at risks and harms, yet there is not one recommendation in the majority government report that calls for research on medical marijuana and some of the benefits that have already been shown. So much for a parliamentary study. It is actually shameful that it is so biased and prejudicial.
We believe that we need have more research done. We believe that we need to take a broad public health approach. In fact, what we think should happen, and this is one of our recommendations in our report, is that we should:
Establish an independent commission with a broad mandate, including safety and public health, to consult Canadians on all aspects of the non-medical use of marijuana and to provide guidance to Parliament on the institution of an appropriate regulatory regime to govern such use.
Why do we come to this conclusion? We come to this conclusion because it is very clear that the current unregulated market has been a complete failure. It produces violence, stigma, and, in fact, control by organized crime. It is very clear.
I think most Canadians understand that criminalization is not the answer. In fact, criminalization produces a huge amount of harm in and of itself. The reality is that whether the Conservatives can see it or not, they know that it is there. It is very clear that they politically choose to deny it. Our marijuana laws need to be modernized, and they need to be based on evidence and public health principles.
This is something that is taking place throughout the world. We only have to look south of the border to see that different states, whether it is Colorado or Washington, are taking a much more realistic public health approach to marijuana based on a balance of prevention, public health, well-being, harm reduction, community safety, and public education.
That is the kind of approach we need in Canada. It is something the government has politically decided it wants to reject. It simply wants to play a little political game. All it talks about is youth. I have not heard anyone in this House or any witness who came forward say that they think marijuana should be available to youth. In fact, that is precisely the reason we need a regulatory approach; it is so we can set clear rules as to where use can take place, and it should be adults who look at issues of commercialization. We need to look at issues of distribution, just as they have done in some of the states south of the border.
The government’s sort of political mantra on this focuses on youth. There are issues around the use of any substance, whether it is alcohol, marijuana, or any other substance, but that is only part of the question we are looking at. I would argue strenuously that a regulatory approach, a public health approach, would enable us to have much better coordination and an overview of what we need to do in terms of ensuring that youth do not have access to substances, whether it is marijuana or anything else, that are harmful.
It is staring us in the face that this is the classic example of the response of the Conservative government to an issue. It is tougher laws and bringing in mandatory minimum sentences. That is what it did for drug crimes. However, everything we see before us is telling us that criminalization of drug use, whether it is marijuana or other substances, is actually producing more harm.
It is abundantly clear that what is needed is a public health approach, which has been adopted by the medical health officers across the county and has been supported by many major cities across the county. Certainly the city of Vancouver has led the way on this issue.
I find it astounding that, still today, as this report comes forward, the Conservatives are using this as a political hammer. I want to say that I do not think it is going to work. It is a failure.
Canadians actually understand what this debate is about. Canadians understand that criminalization is something that has failed in this country. The so-called war on drugs, just as we saw with Prohibition in the 1930s, actually produces more crime and violence. That is what we are facing in Canada today. We can look at what has been happening in Surrey or Vancouver. We can see the gang violence and the violence that comes about as a result of prohibition.
In this party, we would rather be on the side of evidence. We would rather be on the side of reality. We would rather be on the side of a proper regulatory approach that produces a coherent response, based on public policy and public health, to the issue of marijuana.
The Conservatives can rant all they want and try to create a black and white situation in which people are either with them or against them, as we have heard so often in the House, but Canadians are not fooled. Canadians know that we need to have these laws modernized. They know that we need to have proper oversight and a regulatory approach that will actually help young people be safer.
We need a regulatory approach that would ensure that we have proper rules, regulations, and guidelines about where marijuana use can take place. These are all very important questions.
I am very proud of the fact that the NDP produced a brief report in the overall Standing Committee of Health report in October. It lays out very clearly the principles and the direction that we believe are absolutely necessary in dealing with the issue of marijuana use in Canada.
To conclude, I will again reiterate that, one, we think it should be pursued as a public health approach; two, we believe that we need to fund research to examine the potential effectiveness of medical marijuana; and three, we call for an independent commission with a broad mandate to provide guidance to Parliament on the institution of an appropriate regulatory regime to govern such use.
Hon. Michelle Rempel (Minister of State (Western Economic Diversification), CPC): Mr. Speaker, in my role as Minister of State for Western Economic Diversification, I find myself spending a lot of time in the beautiful city of Vancouver, and I know my colleague opposite represents a riding there. However, one of the issues I hear about outside my economic portfolio is the issue of the marijuana dispensaries that are operating illegally in British Columbia right now and in other cities in the country.
The fact is that they are operating illegally, and since my colleague opposite represents a riding in a city where this is a big issue for many people, I am wondering if she could give her thoughts on the marijuana dispensaries that are operating illegally in the city right now.
Ms. Libby Davies: Mr. Speaker, I thank my hon. colleague for the question. It is a very good and thoughtful question. She is correct that there are numerous medical dispensaries for marijuana, and probably most of them are in my riding of Vancouver East.
The reality is that in Vancouver, local law enforcement has basically not enforced whatever laws it could against these dispensaries, nor has the City of Vancouver, in terms of zoning or licensing, because they are not considered to be harmful.
The member may not be aware that recently the City of Vancouver made an announcement that it wants to provide a proper licensing and regulatory approach to these medical dispensaries. It was very interesting to hear the response from the Minister of Health in Ottawa, who is so far away from what is going on in Vancouver. Of course, her response was nothing surprising: it was no, no, no, this is not going to be allowed to happen.
The fact is that in the city of Vancouver, elected officials, the police department, and other agencies understand that it is much better to have oversight, licensing, and a regulatory approach to these dispensaries to make sure they are operating properly. That is something, again, that is based on public interest.
Therefore, yes, there is a lot going on in Vancouver, and I expect as with other issues, Vancouver will lead the way on this and will be able to bring in proper oversight and a proper licensing system.
Ms. Joyce Murray (Vancouver Quadra, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, I want to commend the member for Vancouver East for her clear remarks about the use of marijuana as a health issue.
I too am from Vancouver, and I have also heard from people like Dr. Perry Kendall and Dr. Evan Wood. Actually, four former attorneys general of British Columbia have spoken out for legalization because of the crime factors and the access for youth in this situation, in which prohibition is the Conservative government’s approach.
I do not disagree with anything the member said. Everything she said was consistent with legalizing this product so that we can regulate and control it, make it inaccessible to young people, and take it out of the hands of criminals. However, my understanding is that on this issue, her party does not support legalization but is actually in favour of decriminalization. While that is better than the current situation in which it is regulated and controlled by the criminal underworld, decriminalization would still not allow regulation and control by government.
I would ask the member how decriminalization is consistent with the factors of control and regulation that she described as being important, as is done south of the border?
Ms. Libby Davies: Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the member’s comments. I would draw her attention to the report from the standing committee within which the NDP minority report is contained. This is an official response from the NDP, and its recommendation is very clear: we are calling for an independent commission to institute an appropriate regulatory regime to govern such use.
I would encourage the member to read the reports. If we look at the Liberal minority report, we see that it uses the word “explore”.
The NDP has been very clear about the direction and the steps that are needed, based on public health and public interest. We need to have an independent commission and we need to have the guidance to Parliament to institute an appropriate regulatory regime. I think that should be very clear to her.
Mr. Raymond Côté (Beauport—Limoilou, NDP): Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for her speech.
The sun is definitely setting on the Conservative government’s reign. It reminds me of monarchs in ancient times who, during their final days, assassinated their entourage to facilitate the transition in an attempt to ease their own passing.
This is so sad because the Conservatives have adopted a really hard-line attitude that rejects scientific evidence and social consensus. I am talking about consensus among various stakeholders with an interest in the problems associated with drug use in general, including marijuana use. I would like my colleague to tell me how concerned the witnesses who appeared as part of the study were about the government’s attitude and what it is trying to achieve through excessive criminalization.
Ms. Libby Davies: Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the clarity with which my colleague has put forward this issue. He is quite right. There is a sense of desperation that we see from government members. They are clinging to the vestige of a criminalization and prohibitionist policy, even though they know that it was a failed policy many decades ago when it came to alcohol. There is a sort of blindness to what they are doing. That is very evident.
To answer the question, a number of witnesses came forward and made it very clear that we need to have more research. We have some evidence now about medical marijuana, but we need to have more evidence-based research. However, the problem is that it is not going to happen with this government, because it has already said in its report that it would only allow research based on risks and harms. Therefore, it is a completely one-sided debate.
We have to reject that, just as we hopefully will reject the government so that it will not be here any longer and we can actually move forward with an intelligent public health-based approach to marijuana and many other issues.
Mr. Terence Young (Oakville, CPC): Mr. Speaker, the member wants to talk about reality and evidence, so why not look at the reality and evidence from Colorado, where marijuana was legalized and where its sale was normalized in January 2014.
Here is what has happened so far. First, the tax revenues Colorado expected have levelled off because given the choice, people would rather stay in a bar and meet their old drug dealer and get their dope 29.5% cheaper, with no tax, than travel to a government-run store. Therefore, that is not proving to be true. Forty-five children eight years old and under have ended up in hospitals getting spinal taps and having their stomachs pumped after eating gummy bears or brownies or whatever their parents left around the house with marijuana in it. There were 45 very seriously ill children. As well, there have been an least two deaths reported from psychotic reactions from people who consumed too much marijuana.
That is the experience so far. Were you aware of that, and are you not afraid the exact same things would happen in Canada?
The Acting Speaker (Mr. Barry Devolin): Once again, could the member direct his questions and comments to the Chair? I am presuming it is the member for Vancouver East he would like to hear from.
The hon. member for Vancouver East.
Ms. Libby Davies: Mr. Speaker, that is the fourth time that the member has not gone through the Chair. I would hope someone with his experience would know the respectful way to debate in this House.
Yes, I am somewhat familiar with what is going on in Colorado. In fact, I was there a year ago as part of a conference, where we heard directly from Colorado officials from the Governor’s office. They have a special law enforcement unit only for marijuana that was very impressive, so I do have some knowledge.
The fact is that their approach for legalization has only been in operation for about a year, so I am not surprised to hear that there are still issues that they are working out.
However, let me say this: the member is cherry-picking. I am sure that there have been youths who have been harmed by marijuana, but let us put that in relation to prescription drugs and the number of people who have died from so-called legal prescription drugs. This is all a relative debate.
Rather than cherry-picking and saying that this happened to two youths or whatever it might be, as tragic as that is, let us learn from what is happening in Colorado or in Washington State. Let us focus on the need to have a made-in-Canada public-health-based approach to marijuana use that has the proper oversight and regulations to actually protect our young people while ensuring that there is not criminalization and that we bring forward a modernization of our law as it pertains to marijuana. Why would the government not do that?
Hon. Rona Ambrose (Minister of Health, CPC): Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to today’s discussion on the serious and lasting health risks of smoking marijuana, especially for our youth.
I would first like to congratulate the health committee on its excellent work in providing the report that is before us today. Over the course of a month, I understand, the committee heard compelling testimony from various witnesses, including medical experts, researchers, the RCMP and government officials.
What is clear from this report is that the Canadian Medical Association’s former president was right when he said, “especially in youth, the evidence is irrefutable—marijuana is dangerous”. Contrast this reality with the Liberal leader’s plan to make smoking marijuana a normal, everyday activity for youth and to have marijuana available in stores, just like alcohol and cigarettes, and we arrive at why it is so important to have this discussion today.
This report provides a thorough assessment of marijuana’s potential for addiction and its negative effects on the developing brains of young people. The evidence is clear that when youth smoke marijuana, they have increased risks of developing mental health issues, including psychosis and schizophrenia. We also know that the regular, long-term smoking of marijuana can harm concentration, memory, the ability to think and to make decisions, and cause paranoia.
The report also points to the alarmingly low level of awareness about the very real risks and harms for youth associated with smoking marijuana. The Liberal plan would not help to raise this awareness. The Liberal leader wants to legalize marijuana, trivializing its risks and harms by making marijuana as easy to access as alcohol or cigarettes. The Liberal leader even wants to allow for and expand home grow ops in neighbourhoods.
Liberal MPs are on the record defending marijuana storefronts in Vancouver. These marijuana dispensaries have absolutely no regard for the rule of law and have been caught selling marijuana to kids as young as 15. These stores are hallmarks of what Canadian neighbourhoods from coast to coast should expect from the Liberal Party. Make no mistake that the Liberals’ plan is to have marijuana storefronts across the country. Storefronts selling marijuana are illegal and, under this Conservative government, will remain illegal. We expect the police to enforce the law.
The serious health impacts on youth make this an important public health issue. We have been working hard to prevent kids from smoking marijuana, and that is why it is so encouraging to see that marijuana smoking among youth is trending downward. The Canadian drug use monitoring survey’s most recent figures report that while 20% of youth smoked marijuana in 2012, it has dropped by almost 45% since 2004. This is a significant reduction and speaks to the success of our approach, which helps to educate families on the serious health risks of smoking marijuana.
Contrast this with another figure included in the same survey. Some 70% of youth drank alcohol in 2012, a fully regulated substance. The Liberal leader’s contention that regulating a substance will prevent kids from accessing it is simply absurd. Such measures would serve only to legitimize and normalize the smoking of marijuana by youth and could mean more than tripling its use, as we have seen with alcohol.
The key problem with the Liberal plan to legalize marijuana, expand home grow ops and make marijuana more available in stores across Canada is simply that the role of a government is to communicate responsibly when it comes to public health messaging. I ask what kind of a message would we be sending to kids and parents if the government were to endorse the sale and smoking of marijuana? It would send the message that smoking marijuana is okay and that it is safe, when the reality is that it has serious and lasting health risks for kids. That is why this Conservative government wants to continue to discourage and stop kids from smoking marijuana.
Our national anti-drug strategy and its focus on the prevention and treatment of drug addiction is clearly having an impact. We have brought in tough new sentences on drug dealers and reduced youth smoking of marijuana by over 30% now. This report from the health committee makes it clear that there is still more that we should be doing. The Liberal plan to legalize marijuana would not help to reduce the number of youth smoking marijuana. It would make marijuana more easily available and would normalize it.
One study that was discussed before the committee revealed that the area of the brain most affected by marijuana use is the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for executive cognitive functions, including decision making, planning, organizing behaviour, and setting and achieving goals. Most concerning for parents, however, is that long-term use can also lead to an increased risk of serious mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia or psychosis. I have heard loud and clear from addiction specialists across the country about the overload of marijuana-addicted kids who are checking in for help.
It can also lead to psychological dependence and addiction. A 20-year medical review published in the journal Addiction shows that regular marijuana smokers face a one in ten chance of developing a dependency on the drug, and that number goes up to one in six for users who started smoking regularly when they were young.
We must also consider the effects on the body and the lungs. We know the effects of tobacco addiction, but what about marijuana? Witnesses before the committee explained that there are risks to a person’s respiratory system as a result of smoking marijuana, which can contain between 50% and 70% more carcinogens than tobacco smoke. During testimony, witnesses noted that smoking marijuana resulted in the inhalation of these carcinogens and carbon monoxide, which can create health risks even greater than those that arise from smoking tobacco. Witnesses also noted research showing that marijuana smoke is an irritant to the lungs, increasing the prevalence of conditions such as bronchitis. These are not simply worrying statistics. The facts speak for themselves and the risk is very real for our youth.
One of the witnesses who provided testimony during the committee study was Dr. Melton Kahan, who said, “…public health organizations need to conduct public health campaigns to counter the prevailing myth that cannabis is harmless and therapeutic”. Last year, when Health Canada launched an awareness campaign on the serious health risks of smoking marijuana for youth, the Liberals cried foul. They do not want Canadian families to know about the health risks that come with smoking marijuana because that would, of course, harm the Liberal leader’s credibility and plan for legalization.
Indeed, the Liberal member for Vancouver Centre was present during that committee study and even said this on the record, “…we have known all along that the long-term effects of cognitive problems coming from the smoking of marijuana over long periods amongst young people, under about 40, are high…”
Canadians will not be fooled. They know that the Liberal leader’s plan to legalize marijuana, making it available in stores just like alcohol and cigarettes, is another example of how he is just not ready for the job.
It has now taken us 50 years to curb tobacco smoking in this country and now the Liberal leader wants to open the door to commercial and retail marijuana companies. What is clear is that the scientific evidence on the risks and harms associated with smoking marijuana continues to grow. There is an ongoing need to ensure that this information is readily available to all Canadians, especially parents and youth.
As it stands, evidence shows that Canadian parents and kids are not properly informed about the risks of smoking marijuana as they are about other illicit drugs. For example, during the committee proceedings, a representative from the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse outlined how some Canadian youth are not aware of the effects of smoking marijuana and that they perceive it as a natural product rather than a drug. Some even believe that smoking marijuana before driving is not as dangerous as drinking and driving.
Our government shares the health committee’s concerns about the harmful effects of smoking marijuana for youth. Unlike the Liberal leader, we do not support making access to harmful illegal drugs easier. As health minister, I find the Liberal leader’s campaign to legalize and normalize smoking marijuana for youth completely irresponsible. This plan sends the wrong message. It sends the message that smoking marijuana is okay and safe for young people, when, in reality, it has very serious and lasting health risks.
Again, I thank the health committee for its report and we will continue to make sure that parents and young people are aware of the health risks of smoking marijuana.
Ms. Libby Davies (Vancouver East, NDP): Mr. Speaker, I am very surprised to hear the Minister of Health today in the House defend a report that is so clearly biased.
The report that we are debating today only looked at health risks and harms. If the minister has read the testimony, she will know that approximately 50% of people who use medical marijuana do so to relieve chronic pain, according to Dr. Perry Kendall, who is a medical health officer in B.C. The research on medical marijuana is very limited because of prohibition and yet when we look at the government report, none of the recommendations would allow, call for or urge the government to do research on medical marijuana.
I would like to ask the minister why she is taking such a biased political stance, because it is very clear it is not based on evidence, and why she is so opposed to legitimate research on medical marijuana that would actually give us the information that is required. Why is she so opposed to that?
Hon. Rona Ambrose: Mr. Speaker, I would ask the member opposite why she is so opposed to the scientific evidence, which the former head of the Canadian Medical Association said is irrefutable, that the harms and risks of marijuana for young people are irrefutable. The evidence exists internationally. Here in Canada, we have outlined it. We had experts in front of the committee. This report is backed by science.
I have said repeatedly that if there is any research that anyone wants to do to prove a health impact or a health effect of marijuana, they are welcome to do that research. The member is incorrect. There is no prohibition on research.
The problem is that there has been a lot of research, but there has not been any proof that marijuana actually has, other than in very specific instances, any medical effectiveness in any way, sense, or form. However, we do have irrefutable evidence that it is harmful to young people, and as the Minister of Health, I have to make my decisions based on science, not on hearsay.