The federal government has promised to reintroduce its Penalties for Organized Drug Crime Act – a bill that died when the spring election was called.
The bill is aimed at combatting illicit drug production and distribution by imposing harsher penalties on organized crime, such as six-month minimum prison sentences for those found growing as few as six marijuana plants and a two-year minimum sentence for those selling marijuana to persons under 18 near schools.
Does organized crime really cultivate just six marijuana plants in its grow-ops? Six months for six plants! Why not seven, like the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers? Unfortunately, sentencing isn’t a musical. Two years in jail for giving marijuana to a friend near a school? What does “near” mean? Anything less than far? If the marijuana is given or sold “near any other public place, usually frequented by persons under the age of 18,” it’s also a mandatory sentence of two years. What public place in urban areas isn’t “usually frequented by persons under the age of 18”? Does the government really think that an 18-year-old giving or selling marijuana to his friend near a school constitutes organized crime?
There are at least two problems with this approach. First, many studies demonstrate that increases in penalties will not affect crime. This has been known for years. Eighteen years ago, a Progressive Conservative Party of Canada election platform noted that the answer to offending “does not lie in simply building more prisons and getting more police. If that were true, then the United States would be the safest place on Earth.” Similarly, that same year (1993), the Reform Party urged “greater certainty in sentencing” rather than increased imprisonment.
Second, this isn’t the best way to deal with Canada’s illicit drug problem. Imprisonment is very costly and, if it’s being justified as a means to address drug problems or achieve public safety, the government needs to demonstrate that imprisonment is the most cost-effective way of achieving reduction in drug use, production and trafficking. It won’t be able to do this. Interestingly, it never tried.
Placing eight or nine people in a penitentiary for drug offences costs $1-million a year. But certain types of targeted policing can reduce the incidence of drug sales. A million dollars is the cost of about 12 police officers for a year. Which would we prefer: 12 more police officers or eight or nine more people in jail?
Teachers, public health nurses and those treating people for drug addiction can also serve to reduce Canada’s drug problems. A million dollars is the cost of 14 more public health nurses or teachers, the benefits from which would extend far beyond any reduction in the use of drugs.
We need to debate these options. In justifying the expansion of the use of imprisonment for drug offenders and other crimes, the government says: “A safe and secure society is worth the cost.” Almost everyone supports a safe, secure, addiction-free society. Wouldn’t a fiscally responsible government want to ensure that it achieved the greatest possible benefit for the money it invested?
Focusing on jail to reduce the illicit use of drugs has been proved to be an expensive way to fail. Increasing imprisonment will have very little, if any, net impact on drug use.
The manner in which we sentence those who violate our laws is important. Various committees and commissions over the past 50 years have consistently noted that sentencing in Canada needs serious attention. Reasonable people can differ on how they want sentences to be determined, but most Canadians appear to prefer that sentences reflect the seriousness of the offence.
By addressing sentencing for drug offences in an unprincipled and incoherent manner and by suggesting that its new set of drug sentences will help address Canada’s drug problem, the government is doomed to failure on two counts: It will not address Canada’s drug problems, and it will make sentences less coherent than they are at the moment.
Edward Greenspan is a Toronto criminal lawyer. Anthony Doob is a professor of criminology at the University of Toronto.
– Article from The Globe and Mail.