THE STANDING SENATE COMMITTEE ON LEGAL AND CONSTITUTIONAL AFFAIRS
OTTAWA, Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Philippe Lucas, Founder/Executive Director, Vancouver Island Compassion Society: Honourable senators, clerks, members of the public, hello. I am Philippe Lucas, and the founder of the Vancouver Island Compassion Society. I am a graduate research fellow with the Centre for Addictions Research of British Columbia and a Victoria city counsellor. I am also one of about 4,000 Canadians authorized by the federal government to use cannabis for medical purposes.
My use of medical cannabis began in 1995 when I was diagnosed with hepatitis C. It turns out that, as a result of an operation in Ottawa in 1982, I had become a victim of Canada’s tainted blood supply. Medical cannabis alleviates the nausea, loss of appetite and localized pain that often accompany hepatitis C. However, finding a safe and consistent supply has been a challenge for so many Canadians, so in 1999, I left a career in education as a high school teacher to open the Vancouver Island Compassion Society, VICS, a non-profit medical cannabis research, distribution and advocacy centre located in Victoria, B.C.
About 14 months after the VICS first opened its doors, we suffered a police raid, and I was charged with three counts of trafficking for the distribution of cannabis. Although the VICS reopened within 10 days, I spent the next two years in court fighting for my freedom and for the rights of sick and suffering Canadians. After hearing how the VICS has positively impacted the lives of its members, Provincial Judge Higginbotham granted me an absolute discharge, praising the work that was being done at the organization, saying:
Mr. Lucas enhanced other peoples’ lives at minimal or no risk to society, although he did it outside any legal framework. He provided that which the Government was unable to provide a safe and high quality supply of marijuana to those needing it for medicinal purposes.
Since that happy day in the summer of 2002, the VICs has gone from a small dispensary on the western edge of Canada to an internationally recognized research centre that has become the template for responsible and effective patient-centred medical cannabis access around the world. In that regard, I have had a chance to advise a number of U.S. states on their medical marijuana program, and 18 months ago I was invited by the Ministry of Health of Israel to help them with their burgeoning medical cannabis program.
I share this story with you today to reflect that, had this bill that you are currently considering been in effect at the time of my arrest in 2000, all the wisdom and deliberation of Judge Higginbotham would have been for naught, and his words of praise ultimately would have meant very little, for he would have had no choice but to sentence me to a mandatory two-year prison term. This prison term would have affected my life and the lives of the thousand members of VICS in innumerous ways. It would have robbed my wife and I of our wedding in the summer of 2002 and of the subsequent birth of my daughter Sophie last year. It would have impacted negatively my ability to pursue my master’s degree at the University of Victory, and it likely would have prevented my election to Victoria City Council in 2008, where my focus has been on harm reduction and ending homelessness. None of this events would have been possible under Bill C-15.
According to the Canadian addiction survey conducted by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse in 2004, over 1 million Canadians use cannabis for medical purposes, and yet just over 4,000 are currently protected from arrest and prosecution through Health Canada’s marijuana medical access regulations, a federal program that has been found unconstitutional five times in as many years for overly restricting legal access to medical cannabis. When coupled with an ever-increasing national arrest rate for cannabis-related offences and the mandatory minimums proposed in Bill C-15, we have a recipe for disaster that could impact tens of thousands of Canadian patients.
In an effort to control the cost and quality of their medicine, many of Canada’s medical cannabis users currently produce their cannabis for, or share it with, fellow patients.
National cannabis enforcement efforts cast a wide net and will inevitably ensnare cancer patients, people living with HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C sufferers, and those affected by multiple schlerosis, epilepsy and chronic pain that benefit from the use of cannabis, as well as the employees of compassion societies risking so much to help them. As a result of mandatory minimum sentences, judges will be powerless to prevent the incarceration of critically and chronically ill Canadians who use cannabis to relieve their suffering.
In regard to diversion to drug courts, I ask this committee to consider how a person suffering from cancer or HIV/AIDS who uses medical cannabis to relieve the symptoms of their condition or the side effects of treatment can possibly benefit by being diverted into a drug court program that specifically prohibits and subsequently punishes the use of this medication through incarceration. Perhaps more pressingly, how does our society as a whole benefit from a perhaps unanticipated but ultimately unavoidable persecution of critically and chronically ill Canadians?
I have often heard the Justice Minister defend this bill by suggesting that Canadians are supportive of laws addressing drug-related crime. However, the members of this committee will do well to remember that for the last 10 years, every national opinion poll conducted on medical cannabis shows that over 80 per cent of Canadians support medical access to cannabis. That is true across all provinces and party lines.
Although I have no doubt that Canadians wish to see a reduction in problematic substance use and associated crime, they deserve policies that will achieve this goal, and inexpensive and ineffective strategies that have been proven to increase judicial and incarceration costs, as well as the transmission of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C with no associative reduction of drug-related crime, violence or addiction. In matters of such huge importance to both public health and public safety, it is imperative that we allow evidence to trump both ideology and public opinion, and in regard to mandatory minimums, the evidence is abundantly clear; they simply do not work. Extensive research conducted on mandatory minimum sentences throughout the world shows that Bill C-15 will not reduce substance use, will not reduce crime and violence, and simply will not make Canadians any safer.
In fact, Bill C-15 will debase every segment of society it touches, from the police officers saddled with the difficult job of enforcing these ineffective laws, to the judges forced to incarcerate otherwise law-abiding citizens and to imprison critically and chronically ill Canadians and those working so hard to help them.
Ladies and gentlemen of this committee, I assure you that there is no single bill you will consider during your term in office that has a greater potential to squander taxpayer funds needlessly, to lead to violations of both human rights and civil liberties, and to increase the spread of transmissible disease and unnecessary suffering than the bill before us today.
On behalf of critically and chronically ill Canadians and those who love them, I am here today to appeal to your logic, to ask for your compassion, and to urge you to please stop Bill C-15.
Thank you very much for your time and attention, and for your work on this important matter. I look forward to your questions.