Politics

Ottawa will listen, but won't act on party push to decriminalize all drugs: Wilson-Raybould

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould says she's open to discussion on decriminalizing small quantities of drugs — but her government has no immediate plans to follow through.

Delegates push for policy changes at Liberal Party convention in Halifax

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said she's open to a conversation on decriminalizing small quantities of drugs and easing Canada's prostitution laws — both progressive policies popular with youth delegates at the Liberal Party convention underway in Halifax.

But she said the Trudeau government has no plan to act on a resolution now before the policy convention to decriminalize simple possession for all illicit drug use, even if it's adopted by the party's grassroots members.

"We are focused on cannabis. We are not moving forward with any other decriminalization," she told CBC News after taking part in a panel on reconciliation with Indigenous people.

The policy resolution was proposed by the national Liberal caucus.

Asked about how the members promoting the resolution might feel about being shot down, she said the party embraces a diversity of opinions and is not rejecting any views.

Earlier in the day, Wilson-Raybould said she was open to discussing the proposal and did not say it was a non-starter.

On prostitution, she said she learned through discussions with stakeholders and sex workers that legalizing prostitution is a divisive issue.

"I'm committed to ensuring that we continue to listen to sex workers, listen to all sides of this debate and see what we can do as we move forward," she said.

Among the 30 policy resolutions being debated by grassroots Liberals is one to decriminalize the sex trade. Another is to decriminalize possession of small quantities of all illegal drugs — to treat abuse of opioids and other drugs as a health issue rather than a criminal one.

While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has ruled out sweeping decriminalization in the past, Wilson-Raybould did not close the door on a policy change down the road.

"It's something I'm open to listening to, but my priority and the priority of our government is to move on the legalization of cannabis and have the regulatory framework around that," she said. "I imagine these discussions are going to continue. It's certainly a conversation I think it's important to have."

Toronto Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who is championing the decriminalization resolution, said the government already has made progress on tackling drug problems by expanding safe consumption sites and investing in treatment services.

He said treating drug possession as an administrative violation rather than a criminal offence, and imposing treatment orders and fines instead of jail time, is the logical next step.

​"The evidence is clear that removing the criminal sanction for low-level possession will save lives," he said. "If our grassroots membership also prioritizes this policy, it is incumbent on our government to listen, and to follow the evidence to save lives."

Convinced government will act

He said no matter what position the government has taken in past, he is convinced it will move on it if party members endorse the resolution.

Health Minister Ginette Petipas-Taylor sat in on the workshop today, where the decriminalization resolution drew many questions and appeared to have broad support. But she was unclear on how the government would proceed if the party's grassroots supports the resolution.

She said there is no "silver bullet" for tackling the drug problem and Canada can't be compared to Portugal, where decriminalization has had positive impacts on consumption, criminal charges and treatment.

"It's not just adopting one model and bringing it to Canada," she said. "We really have to look at what can be effective and efficient for Canada, and that's why we are really happy to hear all of these points of view."

She said the government already has taken a harm reduction approach to the opioid crisis, pursuing "controversial" policies such as supervised consumption sites and medication replacement therapy.

Delegate Noor Samiei said it's an important step for Canada to take.

"When there are laws that aren't protecting people, they won't go for help. And when you decriminalize it, people are more likely to get the help they need," she said.

Liberal Party convention delegate Noor Samiei wants the government to decriminalize possession of small quantities of drugs as a way to treat drug abuse as a health issue. (CBC News)

As the Liberal government deals with deep divisions over a western pipeline expansion, grassroots party members are also pushing for a long-term vision that relies less on getting oil to market and more on Canada's energy independence.

Senior cabinet ministers worked today to rally supporters who might be nervous about building the pipeline.

"I need you to stand up and support what we are doing to take action on climate change and also support projects that make sense in getting resources to market," Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said.

Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr was blunt about what's at stake.

"We're under no illusion about how controversial these projects are. They divide political parties," he said.

Delegates at the Halifax convention — the unofficial kickoff for the 2019 election campaign — began debating 30 policy resolutions today, including one that calls for weaning Canada off foreign oil.

But just as the premiers of Alberta and B.C. are split on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, so too are Liberals at odds over the country's broader oil policy for the future.

John Caruana of Brantford, Ont. said too much effort is being wasted in feuding over infrastructure to export oil when governments should focus on transporting it within the country.

"The more independence we develop, the stronger it is for our nation and for our economy," he said. "I think it would be a way to ease the tension if everybody focused on what we could do to make things more positive. There's certainly more room for co-operation instead of this bickering and fighting."

A resolution from Alberta Liberals calls on the government to consult with provinces, territories, municipalities, Indigenous peoples and other stakeholders "to determine acceptable infrastructure and pipelines necessary for independence."

"Canadian oil and gas independence would allow Canada to ensure that domestic natural resource extraction and usage would be carried out more efficiently, safely and sustainably than in countries which export oil and gas to Canada," the resolution reads, noting that Canada imported 759,000 barrels of oil per day in 2016.

But other Liberals say the government is on the right track now.

Right balance

Marc-Andre Poirier, a University of Ottawa law student from Dieppe, N.B., said the Conservatives and the NDP are on opposite ends of the spectrum, and the Liberals have struck the right balance in building pipelines for economic prosperity while ensuring environmental protection through managed risk.

"Let's be careful with protectionism. On the one hand, we are criticizing it with NAFTA and we don't want to get caught in the crosshairs where we are protecting our industries too much," he said.

According to the Natural Resources department's website, Canada imported crude oil from a wide range of countries in 2016 — including the U.S. (62 per cent), Saudi Arabia (nine per cent), Algeria (nine per cent), Nigeria (eight per cent) and Norway (four per cent) — because of the regional nature of refining markets.

While Canada is a net exporter, imports can play a "significant role" in meeting demand that varies due to geographic constraints.

Because of their connection via major waterways, for example, Atlantic Canada and Quebec have good access to supplies from the northeastern United States and Europe, the Natural Resources website says.

David Axelrod, chief strategist for Barack Obama's back-to-back winning presidential campaigns, took part in a session with Trudeau's principal secretary Gerald Butts Friday night.

"I'm actually on a field trip to remind myself what good, smart, principled, accomplished, progressive leadership looks like," he said, in a not-so-veiled reference to Donald Trump.

The evening wound up with a speech from Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, who praised her husband, thanked volunteers and called on Liberals to prepare for another campaign.

"By working together, we are one. One party, one Liberal family united on the road to 2019," she said.

With files from David Cochrane

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