The ending was anticlimactic. On Monday evening, just as Canadians were sitting down to dinner, Parliament quietly enacted one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s most controversial pieces of legislation.
The Liberals joined forces with the Conservatives to pass Canada’s first mandatory minimum jail sentences for individuals convicted of drug dealing.
The vote was lopsided: 195 to 54. But it was a superficial consensus.
MPs approved the bill without any empirical evidence that harsh sentencing laws reduce drug crime. They endorsed the policy without any estimate of how much it will cost to jail thousands of marijuana growers and street pushers. They changed the law without any plan to contain the spread of AIDS, hepatitis C and other drug-related diseases in the prison system.
The Liberals dared not look soft on crime. The New Democrats and Bloc Québécois were outnumbered.
It was a classic case of polls trumping facts.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson admitted as much last month when he appeared before the Commons justice committee. Challenged to provide proof from any country in the world that mandatory jail time deters drug use or improves public safety, he responded: “I can tell you, there is support for this bill from many ordinary Canadians who are quite concerned about drug abuse.”
He is right about that. Surveys consistently show that 70 to 75 per cent of Canadians support mandatory prison sentences for drug dealers.
But he wasn’t asked how popular the policy was. He was asked for concrete information and he provided none: no research documenting the benefits of harsh drug sentencing laws, no jurisdiction where they’d cut crime.
In fact, most studies – including two by the federal justice department in the last seven years – have concluded that mandatory minimum sentences don’t work. Most experts, including 13 of the 16 who appeared before the committee, recommended that the government scrap the policy.
New York state, which pioneered mandatory sentencing for drug crimes in 1973, has decided to repeal its tough penalties. Michigan, Connecticut, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, New Jersey and North Carolina are rethinking their mandatory minimum drug sentences.
Yet Ottawa is embarking on its own war on drugs.
Under the newly amended Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, judges will be required to impose the following sentences:
A minimum prison term of one year for selling marijuana as part of an organized criminal gang or when a weapon is involved.
A minimum of two years in jail for selling hard drugs such as cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine to young people.
A minimum of six months behind bars for growing five to 200 marijuana plants without a licence and two years for cultivating at least 500 plants.
According to these rules, a high-school student who got hooked on crystal meth and became a supplier would face two years in jail. A single mom who grew a few cannabis plants to supplement her income could be incarcerated for six months.
The bill does give judges some latitude to divert non-violent offenders with substance abuse problems to one of six national drug treatment courts. But most drug dealers will simply be locked up.
The government has not explained why it is heading down the same expensive path the Americans are now abandoning. It has not shown how jailing drug pushers for a year or two will choke off supply lines or weaken the criminal gangs. And it hasn’t told Canadians what will happen when prison-hardened traffickers return to their communities.
In all likelihood, Harper won’t pay a political price. By the time taxpayers realize his policy is ineffective and unaffordable, he will have moved on.
The Canadian people won’t get off so lightly.
– Article from The Toronto Star.
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