Experts Voice Opposition to Bill S-10 and Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

CANNABIS CULTURE – Opposition is growing to Bill S-10, the Conservative-proposed legislation that would bring mandatory minimum sentencing for marijuana offences to Canada, with the release of a new letter from medical and scientific professionals asking the government to support “evidence-based drug policies”.

Researchers at the Urban Health Research Initiative (UHRI), a program of the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, have released a letter voicing concerns about Bill S-10, federal drug legislation they say is “not scientifically grounded and which research demonstrates may actually contribute to health and social harms in our communities.”

“The federal government of Canada is currently considering Bill S-10, which proposes legislative amendments that, among other things, would introduce mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain drug-related offences,” the UHRI website says. “Research clearly demonstrates that mandatory minimum sentences are extremely expensive to the taxpayer and do not meaningfully improve public health and safety nor reduce drug use or crime in our communities.”

The group, made up of medical doctors and drug policy experts, is asking for public support and inviting “other concerned health practitioners, scientists, researchers and academics” in Canada to sign the letter to support “evidence-based drug prevention and treatment initiatives” and oppose “the introduction of costly and ineffective mandatory minimum sentencing.”


Right Hon. Stephen Harper, Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party of Canada
Hon. Michael Ignatieff, Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada
Hon. Jack Layton, Leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada
Mr. Gilles Duceppe, Leader of the Bloc Québécois
House of Commons
Parliament Buildings
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A6

Dear Sirs:

Re: Opposition to Bill S-10, the Penalties for Organized Crime Act

We, the undersigned, are concerned that the federal government is pursuing significant amendments to federal drug legislation, through Bill S-10, which are not scientifically grounded and which research demonstrates may actually contribute to health and social harms in our communities. We join with other individuals and community groups that have previously expressed concerns in their testimony to various Committees and in open letters, and we outline our key concerns, in brief, below.

We oppose Bill S-10

We are extremely concerned that Bill S-10 will exacerbate drug use challenges and related health and social harms in Canadian communities. Specifically, we are concerned that:

1. There is no evidence that mandatory minimum sentences will reduce drug use or deter crime. Research from the United States demonstrates that mandatory minimum penalties are a considerable burden on the taxpayer and are not effective in reducing drug use or drug-related crime. It is especially concerning that while several states in the US, such as New York, Washington, Texas, Connecticut and Maine, are now repealing and moving away from costly and ineffective mandatory minimum sentencing legislation, Canada is moving towards this failed and expensive policy approach.

2. Mandatory minimum sentences have a disproportionately negative impact on youth and Aboriginal persons. In Canada, mandatory minimum sentences will most negatively affect Aboriginal people, and particularly youth, who already face elevated risks related to and harms associated with substance abuse, are at increased risk of HIV infection and are disproportionately incarcerated. Over the last three decades, the proportion of Aboriginal persons admitted into correctional institutions in Canada has doubled from 9% to 18%, despite only representing 3% of the total population of Canada. Bill S-10’s emphasis on mandatory minimum sentences will likely lead to worsening drug-related harms experienced by Aboriginal persons, and does nothing to address the underlying causes contributing to these unacceptable disparities.

3. Policies that over-emphasize drug law enforcement have a negative impact on public health and rates of HIV. According to the Correctional Service of Canada, approximately one in twenty inmates is already HIV-positive and one in three has hepatitis C (HCV). Rates of infectious diseases continue to climb among this population. The House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security recently raised concerns regarding the inadequate level of care and supports for inmates who suffer from mental health and addictions challenges, and stressed that community resources should be augmented to avoid incarcerating this population in the first place. The pending legislation, if implemented, will result in additional prison overcrowding and can be expected to contribute to further increased HIV and HCV risk behaviour in prison. This has serious implications for public health, given that most inmates will be released and reintegrated into the community. It also has implications for healthcare budgets, as the average health costs of each case of HIV infection are estimated to be $250,000.

4. Mandatory minimum sentences are expensive and ineffective. Although the government has not produced detailed budget estimates regarding the potential cost of implementing mandatory minimum sentences, similar sentencing regimes introduced in the United States have cost taxpayers billions of dollars. During these difficult economic times, this raises the question of why the federal government proposes to spend scarce financial resources on policies that have been shown to be expensive, ineffective and harmful. The reasons given by US jurisdictions for moving away from mandatory minimum sentencing legislation are the extreme costs to taxpayers, the ineffectiveness of this approach, and the resulting disproportionate harms to ethnic minority communities.

We support evidence-based drug policies

The Legislative Summary for Bill S-10 outlines no evidence supporting mandatory minimum sentences as an effective means of improving public health and community safety, or deterring crime. We support the goal of improving community health and safety through evidence-based drug policies, which includes expanding drug prevention and treatment initiatives. We encourage you to use the recommendations of the World Health Organization and the Vienna Declaration, a scientific statement endorsed by leading scientists, researchers and health professionals around the world, to guide Canada’s drug policy.

We share the government’s commitment to addressing the challenges of substance abuse but do not support the implementation of non-evidence-based policies, such as Bill S-10, which place an enormous burden on taxpayers and will cause considerable health-related harms, while failing to improve community health and safety.

We are calling on the federal government to demonstrate leadership in addressing these challenging issues by abandoning Bill S-10 and pursuing an evidence-based policy approach that moves away from ineffective and costly incarceration schemes for non-violent drug offenders and towards evidence-based modalities. We invite you to work together with the public health community to develop scientifically grounded policies that meaningfully address drug-related health and social harms, are fiscally responsible, and are “smart on crime.”
We look forward to your response.


    Cc: Members of Parliament of Canada

    The letter is the latest initiative from a growing movement of concerned citizens and professionals who oppose the Canadian Federal Government’s push to send increasing numbers of non-violent Canadians to prison at a time when the crime rate has been dropping.

    Sign The Vienna Declaration

    At the same time, there is a burgeon international effort to support evidence-based drug laws. The Vienna Declaration is a call from international experts and several of the world’s leading HIV and drug policy scientific bodies for the incorporation of scientific evidence into the process of crafting international drug policies.

    The declaration, which calls on the United Nations to support drug policy reforms including decriminalization of, was the official declaration of the XVIII International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2010), held in Vienna, Austria from July 18 to 23, 2010.

    “The criminalisation of illicit drug users is fuelling the HIV epidemic and has resulted in overwhelmingly negative health and social consequences,” the declaration reads. “A full policy reorientation is needed.”

    The document has over 18,000 signatures from citizens, scientists, researchers, academics, law enforcement professionals and world leaders, and has been endorsed by the city councils of Toronto, Victoria, and Vancouver.

    CLICK HERE to read and sign the VIENNA DECLARATION