Law and Order Ottawa: Bill C-15 is Wrong Approach to Drugs

Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada want to put marijuana users, growers and sellers behind bars. Bill C-15 will bring American-style mandatory minimum sentences to Canada.Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada want to put marijuana users, growers and sellers behind bars. Bill C-15 will bring American-style mandatory minimum sentences to Canada.

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Mexico has recently decriminalized possession of small amounts of most illicit substances. Portugal is reporting success with similar reforms. Former Latin American leaders are calling for ending drug prohibition and implementing legally regulated markets.

It seems that radical drug policy reform is catching on, but the current Canadian government is moving backwards by attempting to implement mandatory minimum sentences (MMS) for drug offences in the form of Bill C-15.

Bill C-15 moved through the House of Commons quickly this past spring, where a very deferential Liberal party supported the Conservative motion, with the Bloc Québecois and NDP opposing. Bill C-15 will prescribe mandatory minimum sentences (MMS) for drug crimes, meaning that certain offences will trigger automatic jail or prison sentences.

For example, growing between six and two hundred marijuana plants will result in six to nine months of imprisonment, or two years if youth are around. Producing or selling drugs such as cocaine and heroin with the involvement of organized crime or violence has a penalty of a one year minimum sentence. Doing the same in a prison or involving youth results in two years in prison. The Bill is part of the Conservative’s larger anti-crime strategy, an unabashedly ‘tough on crime’ strategy, light on supporting evidence, but heavy on divisive wedge politics.

Making Canadians safer, or making bigger profits for organized crime?

But is Bill C-15 going to make Canadians safer, as its defenders claim? Not likely. A 2002 Department of Justice study concluded drug consumption and related crime seem to be unaffected by MMS policies. The day to day of the illicit drug markets will hardly be affected. Since the risks of the drug trade will increase, prices likely will rise as well, resulting in higher profits for those we are trying to punish with this bill.

Liberal MP Brian Murphy stated in the House of Commons that it would be a good thing even if the organized criminals were not deterred and the only people caught and deterred by C-15 were ‘mom and pop’ marijuana growers. Recently law enforcement officials in California stated that the mom and pop operations in that state are diverting significant amounts of market share away from Mexican cartels. Responsible growers are the biggest competition for organized crime, yet we want to lock them up?

The trouble with Bill C-15 is that it still addresses the issue of drugs with a war-on-drugs mentality. Illicit drugs are seen as something that can be removed from our society, when in reality they are a lucrative commodity and have been part of societies since the beginning of time. Without responsibly and sensibly addressing drugs in our society this Bill will be another failed attempt at maintaining a criminally enforced drug prohibition in a society that won’t sustain it.

For many, Drug Treatment Courts (DTCs) are the silver lining of Bill C-15, but experts have already warned that they are not a viable option for many who will be facing charges under Bill C-15. DTCs are expensive to build and few Canadian cities already have one. Treatment centers and services have long waiting lists. For those who do get access to the DTCs, success rates are low and generally short-term.

Liberals choose ‘tough on crime’ over ‘smart on crime’

In April 2009, members of CSSDP descended upon Parliament Hill to speak to MPs about Bill C-15. Our position, like the majority of witnesses, was that the Bill should be dropped in its entirety, and replaced with a sensible, evidence-based drug policy.

Many of the Liberal MPs we met with agreed with us that MMSs were not going to make Canadians safer, or curb the illicit drug market, or change the fact that roughly 70 per cent of resources go to enforcement rather than treatment, education or harm reduction. But then we heard what really mattered to them; if the Liberal party voted against Bill C-15 the Conservatives will paint them as ‘soft on crime.’ No matter how hard we argued that being ‘smart on crime’ is what Canadians want and need, most Liberals thought that by voting for C-15 they were engineering the Liberal party’s return to power.

It’s no secret that the Conservatives have been using crime and safety issues as wedge issues. When asked where the evidence was to support Bill C-15, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson stated he didn’t need any because he had the will of the people. Conservatives accused Liberal Senators of directly threatening the safety and well being of Canadians by not pushing C-15 and other justice bills through.

Discrediting evidence-based policy-making

A recent study by Graham Stewart and Michael Jackson done on the Conservatives roadmap for justice and prison reform found that “Raw wedge politics — in place of studied evidence — is the new face of public policy for Canada.” Bill C-15 is simply part of a broader attempt to discredit evidence-based policy-making, and instead promote base judgements, uninformed opinions and distrust in anyone who tries to stand up for a sensible policy.

In the face of these wedge politics, several witnesses at the Parliamentary Justice Committee hearings on C-15 spoke in favour of ending drug prohibition, with substantial evidence to back their arguments. For example, under drug prohibition the lion’s share of the market is under the control of organized crime groups. Ending drug prohibition means replacing a criminal prohibition scheme with one that puts the control of production and distribution in responsible hands.

If Canadians want to get serious about tackling organized crime, we need to talk realistically about drug use and the drug market. Criminalizing production and distribution maintains an illegal black market, controlled by those most willing to use violence to hold their share, and those least deterred by prison sentences.

Just as we have different regulatory schemes to cover alcohol and tobacco, we can implement different regulatory schemes to cover other illicit drugs. Responsible and sensible users, producers, and distributors of currently illicit substances should not be criminalized.

Canadians may need to take a strong, ‘tough’ stance against organized crime. What could be tougher on organized crime than taking away its profit source by successfully re-regulating drugs?

Caleb Chepesiuk is a staff member with Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a national non-profit grassroots youth network working to promote evidence-based information and resources on substance use issues.

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