Bill C-15’s Mandatory Minimum Terms for Drug Crime: A Failure on Their Own Terms

Let’s assume that mandatory minimum sentences for the distribution of illegal drugs represent good social policy, sending a message to would be participants in the commercial trade. One could then argue that mandatory minimum terms of imprisonment tell drug dealers that their activities will have some new consequences, consequences that will serve to curtail their involvement in the business, particularly if they use weapons, or engage in any form of intimidation.

Unfortunately, the bill has its own internal contradictions, regardless of whether one believes in its approach. The most significant contradiction is its relatively harsh treatment of cannabis production, in contrast to its treatment of the trafficking (or possession for the purpose of trafficking) in cannabis (and heroin and cocaine). Section 5(3) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act is to be amended to provide for a minimum term of one year imprisonment for trafficking in heroin, cocaine or cannabis, provided that the convicted person commits the offence as part of a criminal organization, uses violence in committing the offence, is carrying or threatening to use a weapon in committing the offence — or has served a term of imprisonment for a designated substance offence (typically trafficking or importing an illegal drug). Somewhat surprisingly and quite inconsistently, these same caveats are not applied to the offence of marijuana production (section 3.1 (b) of Bill C-15). Granted, the minimum term of imprisonment is six months, rather than one year, but the irony is that the distributors of more dangerous drugs are to be treated less harshly than the producers of a less dangerous drug (cannabis), irrespective of the actual amounts involved. And even more oddly, the distributors of cannabis are to be treated differently from the producers of cannabis, again irrespective of the amounts in question.

Additionally, consider section 1. (1) (a) (i) (D) of Bill C-15, the proposed imposition of a mandatory term of one year in prison, if the convicted drug distributor has served a term of imprisonment for distribution of marijuana, cocaine, or heroin at any point during the previous 10 years. Think of the user-dealer with longstanding addiction and mental health problems, convicted of selling a small amount of crack cocaine to his associates and having previously served a short jail sentence for this crime. Is this the kind of person that we now want to target — to lock up for a minimum of one year? It seems quite clear that if our politicians leave this section as it is, it will fill our jails with hundreds of individuals annually who are far from commercially driven by the illicit trade – individuals who might be better served by a range of treatment modalities than by a mandated term of imprisonment.

But back to the Bill’s most glaring inconsistency — its much harsher treatment of the production of cannabis (in contrast to the distribution of cannabis, cocaine or heroin). C-15 will impose a minimum term of imprisonment of six months on any grower of six plants or more, irrespective of the issues of violence, weaponry or the presence of criminal networks. It scarcely needs to be said that marijuana growers are not uniformly violent; studies to date indicate that the industry is far from hierarchical, and, accordingly, is replete with a variety of unrelated grow operations. The majority of growers do not use violence, do not carry weapons and are not part of any criminal organization, as defined by section 467.1 (1) of the Criminal Code (unless any individuals who conspire to grow marijuana are, by definition, organized criminals). In these circumstances, Bill C-15 will have the unfortunate consequence of annually jailing thousands of Canadians who do not threaten the social fabric any more than those who produce, in a regulated framework, drugs such as tobacco and alcohol. And if morbidity is our benchmark, it might be fairly said that the producers of alcohol and tobacco are imposing much greater harms upon our communities, even when rates of use of each of these drugs are taken into account.

This is a problem. Why does the Bill, which is purported to attack the commercial aspects of the trade, and the violence within it, nonetheless target addicted user/dealers? And why does it slam marijuana producers with minimum terms, but offer up a more lenient treatment for the distributors of the same drug, irrespective of the amounts in question? I have yet to find any good answers for these questions.

– Article from The Vancouver Sun.


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