The Liberals made a lot of promises during the 2015 election. Who could blame them? A third-place party needs to shoot for the moon. But as electoral reform, lower small business taxes, stock option loopholes, modest deficits and on and on demonstrate, election promises are made to be broken.
So perhaps it should not be a surprise that the Grits are on their way to breaking a few more campaign pledges — a promise to base policy on evidence and a promise to improve parliamentary committees.
The evidence of these latest campaign reversals can be found in another half-kept promise — legal marijuana.
When it comes to legalization of marijuana, it seems that the Liberals will keep their promise — sort of. They pledged to legalize marijuana because it “traps too many Canadians in the criminal justice system,” because illegal weed funds criminal organizations and because legal but regulated cannabis better keeps drugs away from our children. So, in 2015, the Liberals promised to “remove marijuana consumption and incidental possession from the Criminal Code.”
But the Liberal’s proposed cannabis bill actually doesn’t do any of those things very well. Sure, the new legislation does legalize some marijuana — some of the time, under some circumstances — but it does not “remove marijuana consumption and possession from the Criminal Code.”
In reality, the new bill is an unnecessarily complex piece of legislation that leaves intact the criminalization of marijuana in many circumstances.
An adult who possesses more than 30 grams of marijuana in public is a criminal. A youth who possesses more than five grams of marijuana is a criminal. An 18-year-old who passes a joint to his 17-year-old friend is a criminal. An adult who grows five marijuana plants is a criminal. And anyone who possesses non-government-approved marijuana is a criminal.
The new pot bill also continues to criminalize anyone under 18 who possesses more than five grams of marijuana — an activity that will be perfectly legal for adults. Nowhere else in the Criminal Code is a youth criminalized for an act that is legal for an adult. The disproportionate and asymmetrical criminalization of youth is simply counter-productive and an irrational criminal justice policy.
These flaws in the cannabis bill were all detailed by multiple witnesses (including me) who testified before the Justice Committee.
And after 109 witnesses there were surprisingly few amendments.
First, let’s start with the three positive amendments that passed. Liberal MP Ron McKinnon successfully moved an amendment to add a Good Samaritan exception to the bill. The committee also amended the bill to legalize edibles within 12 months. And the ridiculous criminalization of cannabis plants that exceed 100 centimetres of height was removed (but even here politics was played as the NDP’s amendment was opposed by liberals so they could pass their own substantively identical amendment).
Despite these three reasonable changes, dozens of necessary and equitable amendments — in fact, every opposition amendment — were rejected by the Liberal-dominated committee.
An amendment to the purpose of the act to recognize that criminal prohibitions in relation to cannabis may have a negative impact on social determinants of health — rejected.
Amendments to actually remove marijuana from the Criminal Code or at the very least to reduce the impacts of criminalization including: increasing the amount of marijuana that can be possessed, preventing the asymmetrical criminalization of youth, reducing criminal penalties to bring them more in line with alcohol and tobacco and narrowing distribution offences to limit the absurd criminalization of a 19-year-old who passes a joint to a 17-year-old friend — all denied.
Despite the evidence, Liberals voted as a block against every opposition amendment.
The Conservatives pouted that they did not support legalization so they, too, robotically voted against every amendment — even ones with which they agreed — even with the full knowledge that the bill will inevitably pass in a majority Parliament.
So, how does the Liberals’ conduct prove that they have broken their promise to listen to evidence and take the parliamentary committee process seriously?
One short example.
Bill C-45 leaves dozens of minor marijuana offences in the Criminal Code. Under some circumstances, however, police officers can use their discretion to issue tickets instead of criminal charges. If the ticket is paid within 30 days, then the judicial record of the ticket and the court proceedings are sealed and cannot be disclosed to anybody.
There is good reason for this protection as a drug record, even if it’s just a ticket, can negatively impact travel, employment, housing and full participation in many pro-social activities.
But even if the police are blind to race and socioeconomic status when they make the decision to forgo criminal charges and issue tickets (spoiler: they won’t be), the new legislation is not.
If you are poor and can’t pay the fine in 30 days, your record won’t be sealed. Forget travelling south of the boarder and get ready to fail any employment-related background check.
The simple fact is that the ticket regime discriminates against the poor and will inevitably be found to violate the Charter.
This was the evidence before the committee. This was the evidence that the Liberals ignored.
The NDP’s Don Davies moved a minor amendment to fix the ticket problem. In short, he proposed that if a person can satisfy a judge that they are poor and cannot pay the ticket, the judge would have the discretion to treat their record in the same way as someone who could afford to pay the fine or the ticket.
It was a reasonable solution that was evidence based. Even the Conservatives thought so, at least according to Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu who said she agreed with the principle of Davies’ change, adding, “If you're poor, you shouldn't be punished for not being able to pay your ticket by receiving more criminality, or less privacy, or anything else.”
But the Conservatives voted against the amendment — because politics.
And so did the Liberals.
Are the Liberals against judicial discretion? No. Are the Liberals in favour of punishing the poor more harshly? No. Are the Liberals ignoring evidence, playing politics and refusing to improve their bill? Most certainly.
This is how a half-kept promise on marijuana legalization exposed two more times the Liberals broke their word.
But who’s counting?