Mike Ellis

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Hmmmm… Canada’s conservative parties — first among them Alberta’s Opposition Wildrose Party and its federal auxiliary, the Conservative Party of Canada — have long found a certain segment of the population’s enthusiasm for unrestricted firearms ownership a politically profitable way to wedge votes away from other parties.

Hence the former Harper government’s destruction of the Liberal-created long-gun registry and its vandalism of the data contained therein, plus the Wildrosers’ stout defence of the “property rights” of so-called “law-abiding gun owners,” as well as the party’s insistence Ottawa leave non-criminal regulation of firearms to the provinces.

So what’s with these same conservatives’ enthusiastic support in the Alberta Legislature Monday for Calgary-West MLA Mike Ellis’s private member’s bill to register and restrict access to the presses and other equipment used by pharmacists to make pills?

Ellis, who as a Progressive Conservative is ex officio a sort of brother in arms, as it were, to the Wildrosers’ tireless defence U.S.-style gun laws, told the Legislature that his Bill 205, the Pharmacy and Drug (Pharmaceutical Equipment Control) Amendment Act, “is what Albertans have been asking for, for a long time.”

Perhaps so. There is certainly serious concern about the widespread and deadly misuse of homemade street versions of synthetic opioid drugs in Alberta and elsewhere in Canada. At any rate, MLAs of all political stripes agreed and members of all parties in the Legislature swiftly passed Ellis’s bill.

But what does this say about these two conservative parties’ attitudes about the rights of law-abiding pill press owners? What about their constitutional rights, like the right not to be locked up, as the gun lobby likes to put it, simply because the arbitrary pill-press grabbers don’t like them? And don’t I have the right to grind up perfectly legal cedar roots or bird droppings and make homeopathic pills for my own use if I wish?

One would almost think the conservatives in the Legislature, along with the members of other parties, had harm reduction and the needs of society in mind, quite unlike the position they take on wide-open gun ownership.

If you think this line of argument seems silly, would someone please explain how this law is any different from the proposals of the so-called “gun grabbers” to require law-abiding gun owners to register their weapons, and to restrict the right to ownership of certain kinds of weapons that are clearly designed only to kill human beings on an industrial scale? The idea of gun registration and regulation aroused hysteria among conservatives during the years the Harper government used gun control as a wedge issue. The idea of pill-press registration and regulation? … Not so much.

In fact, Alberta’s new pill-machine law goes farther than oft-reviled Canadian “gun grabbers” ever proposed. It sensibly attempts to restrict ownership of pill presses, capsule fillers and drug mixers to people who can prove they actually need them to do socially acceptable work. If you’re not a pharmacist or a drug technician, it assumes you’re up to no good if you possess one of these things.

Ellis, a former police officer, would actually like to go further with this — I heard him on my local CBC station yesterday morning arguing that similar provisions ought to be included in the Canadian Criminal Code, which is federal legislation.

If as a society we really want to restrict ownership of pill-making equipment, this would probably be a good idea, since some smart defence lawyer is certain to argue that with its high fines and heavy jail time, not to mention the justifications advanced for this law, Ellis’s bill is in fact criminal law, and therefore ultra vires. Then we Alberta taxpayers will have to pay to defend a law that is constitutionally unsound on jurisdictional grounds, properly belonging only to the federal level of government.

As an aside, avoiding this kind of technical problem with new laws is one of the things the Canadian Senate is supposed to do, and often did until Stephen Harper’s Conservative government came along and whipped it like a red-headed stepchild. Maybe we could establish a Senate here in Alberta … on second thought, belay that idea.

As all of us who have been schooled in the ways of the Westminster Parliamentary system know well, it’s unusual for a private member’s bill to become law. It does seem to be happening more often nowadays, as governments like the aforementioned Harper’s used the technique to avoid the scrutiny of Parliament and its committees.

This is not what appears to have happened this time, though, or when Bill 204, then-Independent MLA Deb Drever’s private member’s bill to allow victims of domestic violence to break leases to protect their safety, became law in December.

Nevertheless, there are sound reasons why bills that are intended to actually become law should start their journey to that status with the support and resources of the government. Not least among them is that thanks to the competence of government legislative drafters, they are less likely to fail in the courts once passed, and thus to waste the public’s money defending flawed legislation enacted in unseemly and politically motivated haste.

Ellis’s bill courts such a fate.

What is most interesting about this development is how the approach taken by Ellis makes sense to Wildrosers and conservatives of all kinds when it comes to pill-manufacturing equipment, but not for firearms, which unlike pill presses and cap fillers are specifically designed to kill things.

I’m sure someone will be happy to step forward to explain, presumably in the insulting tones characteristic of Canada’s recently empowered gun enthusiasts.

In the meantime, I am waiting for some “property rights advocate” to remind us: “First they came for the pill machines, and I said nothing, then they came for the bottle cappers…”

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...