Victoria NDP MP speaks out against Conservative crime bills and mandatory minimum sentences

By Kristen Mann

I sat done with Victoria MP Denise Savioe for a conversation about marijuana, the recent bill C-15, the Marijuana Medical Access Regulations, and the NDP drug policy.

The New Year’s surprise prorogation forced C-15 to be dropped from its legislative procession, but was also an affront to our voice as a people. Prime Minister Stephen Harper proposed to the Governor General Michaëlle Jean that parliament take an extra five weeks of paid vacation, and resume after the Olympics. The official press release says “The call for a new Throne Speech to launch the 3rd Session of the current Parliament is routine[…] We will reintroduce in their original form the consumer safety law (Bill C-6) and the anti-drug-crime law (Bill C-15) that the Ignatieff Liberals gutted.”

Denise has been involved in politics for a couple of decades now. She credits the accident at Chernobyl, and the ensuing media black out by the French government, with inspiring her. “I got involved, seriously, when I came back from living in France in 1987ish. I had done post-grad work in France, and while I was in France the accident of Chernobyl happened. I was living in a part of France where, I found out later, there was ultimately radioactive fallout. […] the French government had ordered a news blackout, so nobody in France knew what had happened. And I found out from talking to an American friend, over the phone. Do you know why the government did that? France is powered by nuclear, and they thought there would be a huge reaction, and so they wanted to control the masses. It struck me, right then and there, that government politics matter. Government makes big decisions—big decisions— and sometimes decisions that are irreversible. I decided at that time, while I was still in France, when we came back to Canada I would get involved— and I did. I started an organization with some friends called the Greater Victoria Environmental Network, and out of that organization grew a number of cycling infrastructure initiatives.” From there she made the jump into local government.

As a city councillor in Victoria for six years, Denise heard much about the medical marijuana issues, especially in regards to the Health Canada program and medical cannabis distribution centres. With regards to the Health Canada Marijuana Medical Access Regulations she says, “It has long been my understanding, from the time that I was on city council in Victoria, and Ted Smith would come and ask us to write to Health Canada, that they don’t [meet patient needs]. I just read, I was away but I read, that a decision was made by the court allowing, for example, the City of Vancouver to keep its Insite without the medical exemption. I am wondering to what extent that federal exemption is really needed now.”

Section 56 Exemptions from the Canadian Controlled Drug and Substanc- es Act provide the legal framework for in- dividuals or organizations, including Insite in Vancouver, for the purpose of research, medical, or public interest benefit. Like many of us, Denise was unsure of how the actual regulations work. In response to the idea of dispensaries getting exemptions she said, “I would have to really understand all the implications, which I don’t. I’m not say- ing no, but I don’t understand all the implications.”

The bakery of the Cannabis Buy- ers’ Club was raided by police the same week that C-15 was amended and passed by Senate. If the bill would have passed into law, an act such as straining leaf out of the butter through cheesecloth would be considered making an extraction in a rental property. C-15 proposed this “crime” be subject to a minimum sentence of 18 months in jail. There is obviously a flaw in our system when making cookies for sick patients will land you a couple of years in prison.

Denise Savoie and the Federal New Democratic Party (NDP) have con- sistently spoken out and voted against these poor drug laws. “I support decriminalizing marijuana. I think that is why I fought against C-15. C-15 is the opposite of what a law should do. The government talked about wanting to go after the king-pins and the big dealer, and all it really did was go after the little guy. It wasn’t going to address the problems that most people want addressed. I think most people are concerned about organized crime and big criminal activities and gangs, and I think they would support government action to do that. But this bill didn’t do that, in fact, it would do the opposite. It would waste resources. Just throwing people in jail doesn’t address the issue. They were proposing mandatory minimum [sentences] (MMS) for non-violent crime which we don’t support as New Democrats.”

“The drug policy is not a sensible one. I have spoken out against the Conservative’s idea of drug policy. It is lopsided and focuses all the efforts on enforcement. I know from talking to [some] officers, that feel many of the issues that the government is criminalizing are really social issues. So there are a lot of good policeman on the force who would like, within their own realm, who would like something more sensible than what we are doing right now. What we have is [from our drug policy budget] 73% enforcement, 2% harm reduction, 14% treatment, 2.6% prevention. And the government idea of prevention is brochures, as opposed to programs that would help young people stay away from being lead into addiction.”

The NDP supports the decriminalization of marijuana as a national drug strategy. When I asked Denise about the benefits of decriminalization over legalization, we came to realize that the language of drug policy can be confusing and may have charged connotations in the political arena. If decriminalization simply means repealing any regulation, many politicians and activists believe in a policy of legaliza- tion. Ultimately, taxation and regulations regarding both supply and end users would be proposed, according to most people supporting decriminalization.

“I don’t disagree. I just think that it is one step at a time. We have such a draconian government on these issues. I think if you go one step at a time, and the sky doesn’t fall, sometimes you have more hope of achieving your goals. I haven’t made a decision, I don’t know how far, and maybe you can tell me how far, we should go with the legalization of drugs. Do we legalize crystal meth? Do we legalize cocaine?”

Unfortunately, we can’t debate these types of issues in the houses of government, because our elected officials are being tied up trying to convince themselves that smart drug policy doesn’t mean soft on crime. C-15 is an excellent example of how fear, and not science or logic, has been governing us. The Conservatives have been marketing this bill as anti-gang legislation. The actual text of the bill reads that if you commit a cannabis crime with aggravating factors—with the use of violence, weapons, or in relation with an organized criminal group—you will be subjected to a MMS of one year in jail. If you commit this same offense “in any public place frequented by persons under the age of 18” but without gang or violence involved, you will be subjected to a MMS of two years in jail. These “public places” could include malls, parks, or even university student dormitories. It seems like this wide net being cast will cause many unintended consequences for otherwise law abiding citizens.

“The drug policy is not a sensible one. I have spoken out against the Conservative’s idea of drug policy. It is lopsided and focuses all the efforts on enforcement.”

Potentially, however, it is because the new legislation is not designed to work, but to influence voting. Expert testimony to Senate was very consistent in insisting that imposing MMS will only lead to higher prison populations, and no actual reduction in drug crimes. According to Denise, “I think on the whole MMS are not effective. I have heard from them [the government] no evidence that they work. There may be some cases of certain crimes, I don’t have an example, but they haven’t shown me with C-15 that they are going to be effective. What I think the Conservatives are doing is not addressing gang violence or violent crimes; I think they are developing a brand. They want, whenever you think about the Conservatives, you think ‘Law and Order, Tough on Crime.’ I think it has nothing to do with being smart on crime, [or] being effective in addressing the issues—it is just a brand. It’s marketing.”

She continued, “It reinforces [the fear] in people that are worried, on whom the hype works, who watch too much TV and see criminals everywhere[…] Maybe people are thinking they want tougher penalties. The problem is that we are not thinking it through logically. We are not connecting the dots. For example, if you get caught buying cannabis and you happen to be walking by a school, you get thrown in jail [for 2 years]. It just seems to me like we haven’t thought through the consequences by imposing MMS. We are taking away discretion where a judge might say ‘Did she want to sell it to little kids?’ There are all kinds of circumstances that might affect why you where there, and the judge’s hands would be tied.”

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees all citizens the right of life, liberty, and security of the person, and the right not to be deprived there- of except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice. The lengthy sen- tences imposed for gardening under C-15, would obviously violate a person’s right to be free from disproportionate sentencing. I hope that our federal politicians will learn from the NDP and their approach to drug strategy so that we can move to drafting smart policy. We greatly appreciate the support that Denise has given to the CBC of C over the years, and for her straight- forward approach to drug policy. We are lucky to have her represent Victoria, and hope she stays an MP for a very long time.