Bill C93 & Cannabis
Madam Speaker, I would like to start by saying that Conservatives will be supporting the bill.
Bill C-93 would make changes to the pardon process and waive the fee for Canadians with a past conviction of simple cannabis possession. It would allow people convicted of possession of less than 30 grams of cannabis to apply for free to have their record suspended. It typically costs $631 for someone to apply for a record suspension. In light of the legalization of cannabis in October of last year, the bill seeks to assist Canadians who were criminally charged for something that has now been rendered legal.
Having said that, it is important to discuss some concerns we have had with the bill along the way.
The government has received significant criticism as to how it has handled matters relating to cannabis in the aftermath of legalizing it. For example, last year, the government confirmed there is no conclusive way to determine if someone is driving high. This left our law enforcement officials in limbo, with several police forces across the country refusing to use government-approved testers.In addition, the safety concerns of employers, workers and indigenous communities have not been addressed.
To add to that, the Prime Minister has failed to explain how his plan would keep marijuana out of the hands of children and profits out of the hands of criminals. Also, the lack of public education has left many Canadians unsure of the new rules and how this would impact border crossings between Canada and the United States. The uneven rules by the government for every province, territory, and municipality have created uncertainty and confusion from coast to coast.
The bill is an attempt to address the record suspension issue that was left outstanding since the legalization of cannabis, but there are still many other aspects of the legalization of cannabis that need the government’s attention. However, I am glad to see it is finally starting somewhere.With respect to these issues, the end result the government has come up with is a new category of record suspensions that cannot be easily revoked and can be granted automatically without much insight into an individual’s history.
To be more specific, if an individual were to reoffend, the record suspension received for the charge of simple possession is difficult to reverse.
On this side of the House, we support the idea of expedited pardons, but we want to ensure that the process is fair and accountable.
We are also happy the government accepted two Conservative amendments, which help to improve the bill’s procedural fairness and require the Parole Board to include a review of this program in its annual report. This review process would allow the legislation to be improved upon if necessary.
I would like to note a specific concern expressed by law enforcement agencies about the bill that I find to have a lot of merit. Although they generally support the bill and what it aims to achieve, law enforcement agencies have expressed concerns that an individual could have been charged with a more serious infraction but pleaded it down to simple possession. This makes the individual still eligible for record suspension, making the process very problematic.
The President of the Canadian Police Association has expressed his opinion on this, saying:In those circumstances, it is possible that both the Crown and the court may have accepted the plea agreement based on the assumption that the conviction would be a permanent record of the offence and would not have accepted the lesser charge if they knew this would be cleared without any possibility of review at a future date.Committee members are aware of this. At their appearance, officials said they could not discern between plea deals to lesser charges and people convicted of the genuine offence. This is one of several issues the government has encountered in its rush to meet the Prime Minister’s own self-imposed political deadline.
It is also strange that the Liberals have left this consequential legislation to the final weeks of our Parliament and have failed to consult key stakeholders.
The concerns are still very real and need to be dealt with. I would like to highlight some of them here.At the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, Conservative members asked officials about how unpaid fines would be dealt with at the provincial level when a record suspension can be granted under this law at the federal level, while those fines are still outstanding. They could not answer. This needs to be dealt with since the provinces could lose money if they cannot enforce the payment of fines once these records have been deleted. It is an important detail of this legislation that needs the government’s attention.I am also concerned as to why the government changed this law so that a record suspension could not be revoked on the grounds of bad conduct. Does it want record suspensions or expungement? It is very unclear.
The bill lacks the public safety considerations that come with a proper record suspension and the accessibility of an expungement. It is almost as if the Liberals got lost somewhere along the way in the creation of this legislation and did not think of several important details.
There is also a cost to this legislation that needs to be considered, which officials have estimated would be around $2.5 million. The calculation is based on the idea that over 250,000 people are eligible for record suspensions but only 10,000 would make use of it. What if all 250,000 apply; does the government have a plan for that? The cost would then be around $62 million and not the anticipated $2.5 million, which is a big gap that needs to be accounted for. It is an amount that the government does not seem to have a plan for.
In addition, the government has overlooked another important cost, which is the full cost estimate of the process for the Parole Board to to run a query of its database to determine who is eligible for record suspensions while providing it with the necessary information. This is a process, like any other bureaucratic one, that will require significant resources depending on how many people submit a query.
Another area of concern was brought up by witnesses who testified that this law would impact different communities differently. Generally, those less well-off and those with lower education levels are more likely to have convictions for simple possession of cannabis. Legal experts have said that the people who do not have record suspensions today are unlikely to be able to sort through the challenging paperwork needed just to apply. In addition to the paperwork, to make matters worse, the government calls this a no-cost bill when that is not the case. There would be a $2.5-million price tag for taxpayers and likely between $50 and $200 in fees and complex paperwork for applicants. This process seems designed to ensure as few people as possible apply. It does not look like the government is interested in making it more accessible either. It took out a proposed Conservative amendment that would have made it easier for individuals to access these pardons. As with other types of government applications, this could be complex and time-consuming to fill out. In these cases, we have also seen the emergence of predatory application experts online, who charge up to $1,600 for their services. There are also no meaningful protections in this bill that would prevent this sort of predatory behaviour in order to protect those who are trying to get a record suspension.
The Liberals have said to Canadians that smoking marijuana should be accepted and accessible, and they have implemented legislation to that effect. That is why it seems odd that they are not interested in making the record suspension process just as accessible.
The last concern I would like to bring up on the topic of cannabis is one that is very relevant to my riding of Niagara West, and that is the smell produced by cannabis cultivation facilities. This is especially an issue in the town of Pelham, where families avoid opening their windows in the summer due to the extremely strong odours coming from two cannabis-producing facilities located more than five kilometres away from their houses.
David Ireland, a resident of Pelham, recently said that on hot, humid days it is worse because the production facilities have to vent more often. Because of this, he cannot open any windows without his whole house smelling like cannabis. The situation has become so bad that the Town of Lincoln in my riding has temporarily halted new cannabis-production facilities and put existing operations on notice. At a special council meeting earlier this year, councillors approved a staff recommendation to pass an interim control bylaw that will effectively stop any new cannabis facilities until the town can update its zoning bylaws. The bylaws come at the behest of local residents, who have complained about cannabis greenhouses popping up where they should not and causing light and odour concerns in residential communities. Kristen Dias, a resident from the town of Jordan, was quoted in one of our local papers saying, “Daily, my kids ask about the dead skunks.”
Ms. Dias has since moved her children to a different school, saying that the cannabis odour from the production facilities is part of the reason for the move. My constituents have made dozens of complains about the odour coming from these factories to no avail. Health Canada has not been helpful because it says it is the town’s jurisdiction, while the town says it is Health Canada’s problem. We have been caught in this constant loop for over a year now with no resolution in sight. Our community of Niagara West needs to be clear as to who is responsible for regulating the odour because something needs to be done. Cannabis odour issues produced by production facilities are yet another oversight of the government with respect to rushed marijuana legislation.
To get back to the bill in question, we will monitor the implementation of it and commit to reviewing it for its effectiveness and fairness. Now that cannabis is legal, Conservatives understand Canadians should not be unfairly burdened by criminal records for something that is no longer illegal.
On this side of the House, we agree that Canadians should have expedited access to record suspensions at no cost. That is why we will be supporting this bill.