Nicholson Disappointed with Changes to Crime Bill

The Senate has altered a Conservative tough-on-crime bill to remove mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted of growing fewer than 200 pot plants.

The amendments to Bill C-15 by the Senate committee on legal and constitutional affairs were immediately denounced by Justice Minister Rob Nicholson as “very disappointing.”

“The whole bill is about people who are trafficking in illegal drugs,” said Nicholson.

But a news release from the Senate committee stated its amendments are designed to better target “the ‘kingpins’ or major players in the drug trade” while giving judges and prosecutors more discretion for lesser transgressions.

The changes would also avoid triggering long automatic mandatory prison terms for convicts who have minor drug offences in their past, said the committee.

The amendments must still be voted upon by the Senate as a whole.

Bill C-15 was passed in the elected House of Commons, where the current political dynamic has made opposition parties very cautious about critiquing the Harper government’s tough-on-crime mantra.

But the Senate promised to give the legislation a more critical examination. A Senate inquiry headed by Conservative Pierre Claude Nolin recommended in 2002 that marijuana use for adults should be legalized.

The latest Senate committee said it heard testimony from government officials, law enforcement associations, legal groups, public health organizations and academics that convinced it amendments were needed.

Nicholson was among those who testified, and he stated the “proposals represent a tailored approach to mandatory penalties for serious drug offences.” The new law, testified the justice minister, targets “those who profit off the vulnerabilities of those addicted to drugs.”

However the Senate committee says it heard from witnesses who said the new law would actually induce drug kingpins to recruit more low-level and addicted dealers, who in turn would suffer the consequences of the mandatory minimums.

“There is a large body of research that points to both the lack of a deterrent effect for mandatory minimum sentences and the fact that they can lead to significant increases in the prison population, with little or no impact on public safety,” Howard Sapers, the independent ombudsman for federal offenders, told the Senate committee.

Nicholson said Thursday the notion of mandatory minimum sentences is not a Conservative innovation.

“Most of mandatory sentences were not passed by this government, they were by the Liberals,” he told reporters.

“But the bills that we have brought forward have all got proportional sentences and I think they’re very appropriate.”

Debating over the length of sentences for those convicted of growing between five and 200 cannabis plants for the purpose of trafficking is a far cry from the federal political debate of earlier this decade.

At the time of the 2002 Senate report, Nolin, the Conservative committee chairman, stated that: “Scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that cannabis is substantially less harmful than alcohol and should be treated not as a criminal issue but as a social and public health issue.”

– Article from The Canadian Press.