Ottawa’s Drug Problem: The Penalty Doesn’t Fit the Crime

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.



  1. Anonymous on

    Since Nicholson knows very well that all studies prove MMS to be the most costly and least effective way to reduce drug consumption, what exactly is he trying to accomplish by pushing them? It can’t be reduced drug use, so it must be increased profits for prison builders and administrators. I don’t think I’m comfortable with paying taxes to make those people rich. Somebody should tell Nicholson that, like the one of the other Parties. You know, the ones that we never see on TV telling the public about these studies. The ones who don’t bother to go to Nicholson’s press conferences and ask him some hard questions, like why he wants us to make his friends rich? Where’s that Bob Ray guy? Probably wants to lock us all up too. We’re on our own here, folks, like always.

  2. Anonymous on

    If MMS doesn’t work with cocaine, how dumb would a person have to be to think it would work with Cannabis? Cannabis isn’t even a serious danger to public health, like cocaine. Why would anyone want to throw money on MMS for something that isn’t even a real problem? The smart thing would be to put high fines on Cannabis offenses. That way, the country makes money from the offenders, rather than spending money on them. A $5000 fine would be more deterrent to most street criminals than 6 months in jail. Jail doesn’t cost them a cent. Most gangsters are in and out of jail all the time anyway. As long as it’s not mandatory 10 year sentences all it’s doing is costing taxpayers, not deterring anybody, other than maybe people who would never be growing for commercial purposes anyway. So they’ll stop the guy who was going to grow maybe 10 plants for his own supply. He’ll just buy it from the bikers now instead. More money for bikers, more contact between normal people and organized criminals. Maybe they’ll pick up some heroin while they’re talking to “Snake”. Net result, Joe Stoner is now a heroin addict, all because of Nicholson.

    “This research brief describes work documented in Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentences: Throwing Away the Key or the Taxpayers’ Money? (MR-827-DPRC).

    Excerpt: The DPRC researchers focused on cocaine, which many view as the most problematic drug in America today. They took two approaches to mathematically model the market for cocaine and arrived at the same basic conclusion: Mandatory minimum sentences are not justifiable on the basis of cost-effectiveness at reducing cocaine consumption or drug-related crime. Mandatory minimums reduce cocaine consumption less per million taxpayer dollars spent than spending the same amount on enforcement under the previous sentencing regime. And either enforcement approach reduces drug consumption less, per million dollars spent, than putting heavy users through treatment programs. Mandatory minimums are also less cost-effective than either alternative at reducing cocaine-related crime. A principal reason for these findings is the high cost of incarceration.”

  3. Jon on

    First, the government starts hauling people in jail for growing marijuana. They do it by the truckload. Filling up the new jails they’re building. Terrorizing everybody who has as little as one plant in the backyard. They’ll know when people have really cut back on growing when the organized crime rates start going up.

    Then, they modify the medical marijuana law and simply privatise the whole thing. They let the doctors decide who gets the weed and then,(this is where the private sector comes in), the “conservative friends” who got permits to grow will sell to the patients and make a lot of money.

    Of course, some people without any ailment will get a prescription anyway, but, hey, the friends will just sell a little more. A drop in the ocean is what they’ll claim and they will get away with it.

  4. Dave_s Not Here on

    Pastor Harper and his deluded gang of ignorant, mercenary raptureista thugs don’t have to justify what they’re doing with any stinking logical argument. They’ve been given a majority government to do with as they please. What Pastor Harper pleases to do with “The Harper Government” is to obey his God’s commandment to punish more people. The easiest to nab are the cannabis consumers and suppliers as they are relatively harmless as compared to having to go after some of his REAL organized commercial crime buddies.

    As a side benefit to all this punishing, a whole slew of Pastor Harper’s hangers-on get to dip into the public purse to build housing for and then manage the confinement and abuse of those citizens his hired thugs catch.

  5. Anonymous on

    This is last weeks article. Part 2 was released today. There is a part 3 on the way as well. I believe next Monday is what I read earlier today