Liberals To Vote Against Bill S-10 Even if Conservatives Make it a Confidence Vote

Liberals are ready to go to the polls over the latest government crime bill that’s leading to another round of head-butting in the Commons, saying the legislation could bring jail time for something as innocent as a high school student passing on extra-strength Tylenol capsules to another student with a toothache.

Liberal MP Marlene Jennings (Notre-Dame-de-Grace-Lachine) told The Hill Times “all they have to do is move the vote” over the legislation and the Liberals are ready to defeat it.

The legislation, Bill S-10, Penalties for Organized Drug Crime Act, would bring in sweeping new mandatory minimum jail terms for growing marijuana if police can prove it’s for the purpose of trafficking – which can mean simply one college student giving one marijuana cigarette to another for free.

Asked what the Liberals will do if Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) declares the bill a confidence measure, which would lead to an election if it is defeated in Parliament, Ms. Jennings said “then he declares it a confidence bill. We’re still voting against it. It’s a dumb bill, it really is a dumb bill.”

The NDP, which also opposes the bill, says the opposition estimates it is expected the legislation will swell provincial and federal jails by 4,000 inmates, on top of 3,754 additional inmates Parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page has predicted in an analysis of a separate sentencing law Parliament passed in 2009.

The total cumulative additional cost for both laws to federal and provincial prison systems would be more than $18-billion by 2016, applying Mr. Page’s forecast on costs of the 2009 law. He predicted that measure, ending automatic extra credit for time served before sentencing, will cost the federal government $5.289-billion and cost provincial governments $4.1-billion.

This is the third time the government has introduced similar versions of the same bill. The first version died when Mr. Harper asked the governor general to dissolve Parliament for an election in 2008, and the second died when Mr. Harper prorogued Parliament in December 2009 to avoid a showdown with the opposition over allegations of abuse and torture in Afghanistan The latest version, Bill S-10, cleared the Senate, where the government introduced it, last December.

The government has not yet moved the legislation beyond its first-reading introduction in the Commons on Dec. 14.

The bill—which jumped briefly to centre stage last week with an unexpected announcement from the Liberals that they will oppose it after supporting one of the earlier versions following Senate amendments—would impose mandatory minimums up to two years for trafficking major drugs under certain circumstances, if the dealing is near a school yard for instance, and also introduce new mandatory minimums for trafficking in marijuana.

Two of the most contentious areas are a mandatory minimum of six months for growing just six or more marijuana plants for the purpose of trafficking. As well, Ms. Jennings and the other opposition MPs criticize the inclusion of Tylenol 3 capsules in a schedule that would bring a mandatory minimum sentence for trafficking the pills, which includes passing drugs to another person even for no payment.

“Imagine an 18-year-old has had his wisdom teeth removed, has a prescription for Tylenol 3, has some pills left over and is on the school grounds and there’s a 16-year-old whose cheek is sticking out, clearly an infected tooth, hasn’t been able to get a dental appointment for another 24 to 48 hours,” Ms. Jennings said. “The 18 year old gives him two Tylenol pills to handle the pain, that’s trafficking, a minimum two years. Give me a break. It’s ridiculous.”

Liberal MP Mark Holland (Ajax-Pickering, Ont.) used the example of a college student growing six marijuana plants on his residence window sill. If he or she is caught giving any of it away, the mandatory minimum for trafficking stands.

“There’s a very different situation between a student in a dorm room with six plants who is giving some to his roommate and a Hell’s Angels group with 200 plants,” Mr. Holland said. “This mandatory minimum makes it blind to that. This is going to absolutely pack our prisons with young people making small errors. It’s going to bankrupt us.”

NDP MP Joe Comartin (Windsor-Tecumseh, Ont.), while playing down the prospect of an election over the bill, said MPs have learned through committee study over the various versions of the legislation over the past three years that its net would likely capture drug-world foot soldiers, not the rich and powerful gang members at the top.

“We’re talking 4,000 more people going to jail and billions of dollars it is going to cost us,” Mr. Comartin said. “That’s the estimate, federal and provincial, 4,000 more inmates, and the vast majority of these people are not the kingpins who they claim they’re going after. These are the low-end people and maybe some of the middle people.”

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson (Niagara Falls, Ont.) last week recruited Mr. Harper’s new minister of state for seniors, former Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Julian Fantino (Vaughan, Ont.), to a news conference where Mr. Fantino lent his profile as a former police officer to add to Mr. Nicholson’s attack against the Liberal position. They insisted the bill targets organized gangs and drug dealers.

The Liberal position appears bold, considering an Ekos poll this week that suggested the minority Conservatives have gradually edged up in voter support, with the Liberals dropping further back. Still, the positioning on the drug bill could benefit the Liberal Party if it tries to appeal to younger voters for the next election.

Ekos pollster Frank Graves told The Hill Times the Conservatives now have a solid lock on support from seniors, 48 per cent support from that age group compared to 22 per cent for the Liberals, and baby boomers, 40 per cent of whom would vote Conservative compared to 22 for the Liberals.

– Article from The Hill Times.