Tougher Canadian drug legislation to repeat US mistakes

Get caught passing a joint to a 17-year-old and you'll spend two years in the slammer, says a federal bill only weeks from becoming law.

Get caught passing a joint to a 17-year-old and you’ll spend two years in the slammer, says a federal bill only weeks from becoming law.

Bill C-15, introduced last March in the House of Commons, calls for mandatory minimum sentencing on drug crimes, removing a judge’s power of discretion.

“It absolutely will not and cannot achieve its goals, and everyone knows that,” said Kirk Tousaw, executive director of the Vancouver-based Beyond Prohibition foundation.

“Drug consumption and drug-related crime seem to be unaffected, in any measurable way, by severe (mandatory minimum sentencing),” reads a 2002 report commissioned by the Canadian Department of Justice.

Mandatory minimum sentencing is a “blunt instrument” that wastes taxpayer dollars, states the report.

“While (mandatory minimum sentences) show success in deterring firearms or drunk driving crimes, they appear to have no impact on drug crime,” reads Bill C-15’s backgrounder.

“This puts at risk large numbers of people who are neither hardened criminals nor drug dealers of any stature at all,” said Gord Perks, a Toronto city councillor and chair of the Toronto Drug Strategy Implementation Panel.

“This has more to do with ideology and image-making than it has to do with any kind of evidence-based approach to drug reform,” said Perks.

Vancouver is fast becoming the Canadian epicentre for drug violence, with near-daily incidents of drug-related shootings. In February, Britain’s The Independent described Vancouver as a “blood-splattered” city.

“We need a criminal justice system to carry fear into the hearts of gang members,” said Vancouver Police Chief Constable Jim Chu in February, following a rash of shootings across BC’s Lower Mainland.

Under C-15, if drugs are dealt to support organized crime—or while carrying a weapon, offenders are guaranteed a minimum sentence of one year in jail.

“The gang members need to fear getting caught. The gang members also need to fear the sentencing that they’re being subjected to,” he said.

Still, 65 per cent of British Columbians support the legalization of marijuana as a way to curb violence, according to an Angus Reid Strategies poll released in May.

The Canadian public is far ahead of Canadian politics on the issue of drug reform, said Tousaw.

With C-15, British Columbia alone may need to absorb an additional 700 marijuana growers per year into its overloaded prisons.

The influx would cost a minimum of $40 million per year.

Canada-wide, prisons will need to double-bunk more inmates, erect portable cells and even build new facilities, said Don Head, commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada and a former superintendent of the Whitehorse Correctional Centre.

Prisons are breeding grounds for blood-borne disease—particularly if they’re being packed with intravenous drug users.

More incarceration means more cases of HIV and Hepatitis C—diseases that are spread in the larger community once prisoners are released.

“(C-15) is the very worst way to try to deal with an addiction problem,” said Perks.

Non-violent drug offenders can opt for entry into a drug-treatment program rather than jail time.

Similar programs established in Vancouver have shown dismally low rates of success. Only 14 per cent of entrants ever complete the program, and even then, graduates experience only a “modest” decrease in drug use and drug crime.

Victoria city councillor and medical marijuana grower Philippe Lucas was charged with three counts of trafficking in 2000 after a police raid on his medical marijuana laboratory.

A judge dismissed the charges—even going so far as to offer praise for Lucas’ work.

“Now, if that exact set of circumstances were to take place under bill C-15, all the praise from the judge wouldn’t have stopped him from having to impose a three-year mandatory minimum sentence,” said Lucas.

Lucas has since been elected to Victoria council, is married, has a daughter and started a spate of non-profits: accomplishments that would have been dashed had he been slapped with a mandatory minimum sentence.

“We’re going to destroy people’s lives in order to prevent them from using a drug that most people use in relatively safe ways,” said Eugene Oscapella, a lecturer in criminology at the University of Ottawa.

Marijuana is being used as “currency” to bring harder drugs into Canada, warned Justice Minister Rob Nicholson in April.

Previous Liberal governments have openly voiced support for decriminalizing marijuana—albeit with little legislative backing.

The Liberals have sent the “wrong message,” said Nicholson.

Now, the federal Liberals are key to C-15’s eventual passage into law. Both the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP have strongly opposed the bill.

“It will pass in the House of Commons,” said Yukon MP Larry Bagnell.

Supporting Bill C-15 destroys countless lives just for the sake of political power, said Oscapella.

The bill targets “big drug dealers” who “make a living preying on kids,” said Bagnell.

“That’s absolutely false,” said Perks.

Sharing a joint with a younger brother can automatically precipitate a two-year sentence, he said. A judge’s power of discretion would be irrelevant.

Even habitual users can be slapped with the harsh provisions of C-15, admitted Bagnell.

“If you’re moving, and you’ve got five plants in your car, or you’re giving them away to friends, there is some potential to be caught in it,” said Bagnell.

Twenty-one per cent of Yukoners over the age of 15 use cannabis, according to a 2005 survey. Three per cent use cocaine.

As the United States scales back its failed War on Drugs, Canada seems destined to repeat the worst mistakes of the United States.

“Even though American courts mete out sentences that are double that of British and three times that of Canadian courts, the US violent crime rate is higher than in those two countries,” reads a parliamentary backgrounder to Bill C-15.

The United States homicide rate reached an all-time high during the alcohol prohibition of the 1920s—dropping sharply after prohibition was repealed in 1933.

The War on Drugs, launched in the late 1960s, spurred a even sharper spike in homicides.

The United States holds one quarter of the world’s total prisoners, despite having only five per cent of the world’s total population, largely as a result of strict drug sentencing.

New York state recently pulled the plug on its own 31-year experiment with mandatory minimum sentencing.

In 1973, hardline Governor Nelson Rockefeller instituted a series of drug offences that imposed the same mandatory sentence for possessing four ounces of marijuana as for committing second-degree murder.

“I can’t think of a criminal justice strategy that has been more unsuccessful than the Rockefeller drug laws,” said New York Governor David Paterson in his 2009 State of the State address.

“We’re putting judges in the position to determine sentences based on the facts of a case, and not on mandatory minimum sentences,” said New York assemblyman Jeffrion L. Aubry to the New York Times in 2004, when the laws were overturned.

“To me, that is the restoration of justice.”

Contact Tristin Hopper at