By unanimous vote, the Canadian Senate this week approved a motion to create a five-member special committee to reassess that nation's drug policy. Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, who introduced the motion, has said that his intention is to move the nation away from a criminal justice approach to drugs and toward a drug policy based upon public health which will "truly reflect the values of Canadian society." Committee members will be chosen shortly.
Eugene Oscapella of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy told The Week Online that the road to approval for a select committee was a long one, but that the payoff appears to be worth the wait.
"In late 1995 and early 1996, we (CFDP) appeared before the senate calling for a joint House of Commons and Senate committee to reexamine Canada's drug strategy. When the committee issued a report in late '96, they too recommended a select committee in language that closely mirrored our initial call. Last year (1999) Senator Nolin got in touch with us to ask for a report on the need for such reevaluation, and we provided that to his office. (The CFDP report can be found on the web at http://www.cfdp.ca). Last June, Senator Nolin held a press conference announcing his intent to pursue the creation of such a committee."
That announcement, and the motion that was approved this week, is even more promising than Canadian reformers had hoped, according to Mr. Oscapella.
"The fact that this committee will be strictly an endeavor of the Senate is promising. In Canada, the Senate is not an elected body, and so there is good reason to believe that the product of the committee will be more objective and less beholden to political concerns than it might be if the House of Commons were involved."
Senator Colin Kenny, in a statement in support of the Senator Nolin's motion, seemed to give credence to Mr. Oscapella's observations, saying, "The Senate is the ideal institution to examine the whole problem of illegal drug use. The social and economic costs of the war on drugs constitute such a burden for Canadian society that we must reexamine the issue with complete objectivity. We hope to propose new avenues to the government, less expensive and above all more effective."
Ms. Barbara Reynolds, appointed this week as clerk to the special committee, told The Week Online that the process is in the very early stages, but that the work of seating and getting the committee underway will happen quickly.
"At this point, what we have is an Order of Reference. The next step is for the selection committee to decide who will serve on the special committee. That selection process will begin in the next two weeks, while the Senate is officially on Easter break. We should expect the committee to be selected by the first week of May. Next, the powers of the special committee must be agreed upon. Will they have the authority to travel -- either within or outside of Canada, as well as other issues. What we do know from the Order of Reference is that the scope of the issues that the committee will be charged with debating will be broad. Unlike past efforts of this sort, the Special Committee will be able to look at the whole of Canada's drug strategy, and to make recommendations that go to the core of the issue."
To Mr. Oscapella, that is a key point.
"In 1996, Parliament undertook a half-baked study which was very restrictive in terms of the Order of Reference. That report did not, could not address core issues, and so its impact was minimal. This looks like an entirely different and more important opportunity. The timing too is important because what we are beginning to see in Canada is a political shift toward more fear-based, American-style campaigning. On the other hand, there has developed in Canada a profound sense of unease with regard to our prohibitionist drug policy. Crime, corruption and health problems have made it increasingly apparent to most Canadians that what we are doing in the name of drug control simply is not working. The idea of abandoning prohibition, therefore, is one for which we are seeing greater acceptance, even among the most conservative Canadians."
The committee is expected to spend three years on their work.
To access the Order of Reference on the web, visit http://www.parl.gc.ca then click on English, then on Parliament Business, then on Chamber Business, then on Journals, then on Senate, then on April 11, and scroll to pg. 4.
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