Bill S-10, which seeks to impose mandatory minimum sentences for a number of drugs crimes, is a step closer to becoming law, but Opposition members say it embodies an expensive and ineffective law-and-order, tough-on-crime approach.
The bill proposes a minimum six-month jail sentence for anyone caught growing six or more marijuana plants and 18 months for anyone caught producing hash or edibles like brownies or cookies.
“Our concern first of all is that we don’t believe that these mandatory minimum sentences that the government is inserting in all of their crime bills work,” says Senator James Cowan, leader of the opposition in the Senate. “We think they’re wrong-headed, they suit the Conservatives’ ideology, but all of the evidence is completely contrary to it.”
In a Dec 9 open letter to Conservative Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, Cowan wrote about how Nicholson spoke out against mandatory minimum sentences when he was vice-chair of a parliamentary committee in 1988, saying they were ineffective and cost-prohibitive.
“We’ve been trying to raise the issue that this is a wrong-headed approach, and that we need to be smart on crime, not just tough on crime,” Cowan says. “Of course we don’t have the numbers now, so we can’t change the legislation, but we can propose amendments, we can raise the issues.”
The bill is now on its way to the Commons, and the Opposition critics are preparing strategies for how best to deal with it.
“There’s a strong public appetite to defeat this bill,” says NDP MP Libby Davies, who serves as the critic on drug issues. “Our job when it comes into the House of Commons is to convince the Liberals that they need to develop a backbone on this bill, and they need to look at the evidence and figure out that mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes doesn’t work.
“We have an opportunity here like we’ve done with C-49, the anti-human smuggling bill, to call their bluff, and the three opposition parties have said no go, this is a bad bill. I hope we can do the same on S-10.”
Liberal justice critic Marlene Jennings says she is open to killing the bill at second reading but says the Liberals are looking at how the bill fits with other Conservative crime legislation.
“The sections that deal with organized crime and with grow-ops seem to be spot-on,” says Jennings. “The problem seems to be with their minimum mandatory sentences.”
Jennings says, for example, that someone convicted under S-10 for passing a joint around at a party and for growing marijuana plants for personal use could face a mandatory minimum jail term. But under the provisions of another Conservative crime bill, C-23B, which aims to amend the Pardons legislation, the same person could, if convicted on three drugs charges, earn a permanent criminal record.
“They’re not part of organized crime, they’re not part of a grow-op; it’s a person who’s maybe growing 10 plants of marijuana for their own use, and under medical marijuana, they’re allowed up to 20 plants,” says Jennings. “There’s a real disconnect, and I’m starting to reach out to various stakeholders, public health officials who deal with addiction problems. They’re coming out saying this is not a good thing, that the bill is a bad bill.”
Stakeholder groups opposed to S-10 include the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. In October, it sent a letter to the Senate committee studying the bill, which was signed by Conservative Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, who has previously voted against his party on the bill.
Legal Network executive director Richard Elliott says prisoners have limited access to harm-reduction services like needle exchange programs, which increases the risk of HIV and hepatitis C infection.
“You’re actually taking a population that is already vulnerable; you’re making it worse,” says Elliott. “You’re not actually achieving any benefit, and you’re spending a lot of money to incarcerate people who ultimately need health services primarily.”
“There’s the financial cost of significantly increasing the number of people who would be subject to criminal prosecution and specifically incarceration, and that is a cost that is going to be disproportionately borne by provincial governments, but also that the costs would mean more people with addictions incarcerated, which means more people not getting easy access to addictions services that are needed.”
Cowan, who represents Nova Scotia, raised the issue of provincial costs for minimum sentencing after seeing the parliamentary budget officer’s report on the estimated costs of a previous crime bill. Smaller provinces may be without the means to house more prisoners in an already overloaded system.
“There’s no federal support for provincial jails,” says Cowan. “We want to do everything we can to keep people safe, nobody argues about that, but there’s a smart way to do it, and there’s a dumb way to do it, and I think these guys are going about it in a dumb way.”