Illicit Drug Strategy

Hon. Jim Munson: Honourable senators, my question is for the Leader of the Government in the Senate. Some honourable senators, as I did, may have noted with special interest the report of leading Canadian public health physicians calling on this government to completely reconsider its drug policy.

Yesterday, the chief medical officers for the provinces of British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia, along with the Co-director of the Urban Health Research Initiative at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS published an article in the peer-reviewed open access journal Open Medicine. The article makes a compelling case for the taxation and regulation of marijuana.

I think we all agree that addiction should be considered primarily a health issue and not one of criminal justice. Unlike Canada, U.S. states such as New York, Michigan, Massachusetts and Connecticut are repealing mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offences.

Given that 50 per cent of Canadians already support the legalization of marijuana or cannabis, I think it is time we start asking ourselves, what are we doing?

Hon. Marjory LeBreton (Leader of the Government): Honourable senators, I think it is clear. The government is very clear in its position on marijuana. We just passed a bill through this place, Bill C-10. I did note yesterday the leader of the third party in the other place asking a rather confusing question on this issue. We are well aware of the views of these gentlemen. The government’s position on legalizing marijuana is clear. We do not intend to change that position.

Senator Munson: That is too bad.

As the spokesperson — what is that, Senator Duffy?

Senator Duffy: You’re too old for that stuff.

Senator Munson: Well, there was a time.

Senator Duffy: I know.

Senator Munson: Let us not start talking about the National Press Club in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Senator Duffy. That will be another story, but that will be in my book, so do not worry about that — no pictures, just a story.

Some Hon. Senators: Oh, oh!

Senator Munson: My supplementary question is for the Leader of the Government in the Senate. A spokesperson for the Minister of Justice Rob Nicholson noted that the government through its law-enforcement-centred drug policy is not trying to punish addicts. While that may be true, it is clear this detracts from a health-based approach focused on harm reduction. Indeed, in 2001, during the last review of Canada’s drug strategy, the Auditor General estimated that of the $454 million spent annually on efforts to control illicit drugs, $426 million, or 93.8 per cent, was devoted to law enforcement.

Opponents of drug policy reform argue that shifting our focus from law enforcement will increase drug use, but this, however, is not the case. In fact, the World Health Organization has concluded that countries with stringent user-level illegal drug policies did not have lower levels of use than countries with liberal ones.

Let us look at Portugal, for example. It decriminalized all drug use in 2001, 11 years ago. It has seen reductions in problematic use, drug-related harms and criminal justice overcrowding, all the while maintaining rates of drug use among the lowest in the European Union.

With such evidence, why is the leader’s government pursuing drug policies that have already proven ineffective elsewhere?

Senator LeBreton: Senator Munson, Senator Duffy, I do not know whether or not that was a veiled threat, but I can tell you on that subject I will not be in the senator’s book because I have no interest whatsoever in any drug.

First, the government did establish a National Anti-Drug Strategy in 2007. If the honourable senator is familiar with that strategy, the focus is on prevention and access to treatment for those with drug dependencies, while at the same time getting tough on drug dealers and producers who threaten the safety of our youth and our communities.

The National Anti-Drug Strategy is made up of three action plans: first, the Prevention Action Plan, which aims to prevent illicit drug use; second, the Treatment Action Plan, which aims to treat those with drug dependencies; and third, the Enforcement Action Plan, which aims to combat the production and distribution of illicit drugs.

It is quite incorrect, honourable senators, to characterize this as a program that does not have a large component of treatment and assistance for people who are, unfortunately, addicted to these drugs.

By the way, in 2009 — a scant couple of years ago — the honourable senator’s own leader, Mr. Rae, voted in favour of our drug bill, which was then Bill C-15, so I guess there has been a change of heart along the way.

Senator Munson: Honourable senators, there is one thing on this side of the house: We do have our own opinions and we are allowed to express them. It is an interesting concept.

I would never get into the stories of Senator Duffy or any other senator here.

My third supplementary question is this. Our Defence Minister, Peter MacKay, recently met with his counterparts in the United States and Mexico. They are urging greater military cooperation on the war on drugs. Unfortunately, neither Mr. MacKay nor General Galván, the Secretary of National Defence for Mexico, questioned the prohibitionist drug policies that have proven to be an abject failure. The United States has spent an estimated $1 trillion since former U.S. President Richard Nixon first declared the “war on drugs.” Amazingly, their effort to reduce the supply of drugs through aggressive law enforcement policies has been totally ineffective. Instead, as we know, the prices of more commonly used drugs such as cannabis and cocaine have in fact decreased, while their availability and potency have both risen.

During their meetings, General Galván noted:

Marijuana is what gives drug trafficking networks the greatest resources to continue their nefarious work.

Honourable senators, if marijuana is the backbone of the drug-trafficking trade, would it not then make sense for us to sabotage their monopoly on supply by legalizing or decriminalizing cannabis? Would that not be the most effective policy in the war on drugs?

Senator LeBreton: Honourable senators, I would argue just the opposite. As the minister stated, I would argue that the policies that the government has implemented through our recently passed bill is the way. What we are trying to do is protect our young people, protect our citizens, and crack down on grow ops and organized crime. I would think that most people would be applauding Minister MacKay and Secretary Panetta and their Mexican counterpart for taking steps in this regard. Anyone who watches the news on a nightly basis knows how serious this problem is and what it is doing to our society.

With regard to the honourable senator’s comment that people on his side are entitled to their own opinion, I absolutely agree with him that that is the case; but it is also the case on this side as well.