A government bill that would see mandatory minimum sentences handed out for drug crimes, including possession of as few as six pot plants, has been revived in the Senate. But whereas the Liberals let it pass the House untouched before, this time they’re sounding far more cautious.
“We’re deeply concerned with the costs of this government’s crime agenda,” says Liberal public safety critic Mark Holland. “I think they’ve been very dishonest with the Canadian public around costs.
Holland cites one Conservative crime bill that was originally said to cost $90 million but is now expected to top $2 billion.
“If we start adding these up, we’re looking at spending perhaps tens of billions of dollars, building new prisons, which is an American way of doing things that was a complete disaster.”
The drug bill was previously labelled C-15 and had been amended in the Senate, but it died on the Order Paper when Prime Minister Harper prorogued Parliament in December. It was re-introduced as S-10 in the Senate in its unamended form this session and is currently awaiting debate.
Conservative Senator Bob Runciman, who is on the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs committee, says “something needs to be done” about drug crimes. “More often than not, the folks who were responsible for grow operations were getting nothing more than a slap on the wrist, and the punishment hasn’t been outweighing or out-costing the criminal activity,” he says.
Runciman says that in 2003, when he was the provincial public safety minister in Ontario, police estimated grow houses to be a billion dollar a year industry and the third-largest agricultural cash crop in the province. He also draws links between grow ops and organized crime.
Liberal Senator Serge Joyal moved some of the amendments in the bill’s previous iteration. He cites the committee’s extensive evidence that many of the people found with a small number of plants were people with mental health issues and had other personal psychological problems.
“To just put those people in prison without proper understanding of the circumstances that surrounds their way of living, in our opinion doesn’t meet the target of the bill, which is aimed essentially at the big crop grower or major organized crime,” Joyal says.
“They are not criminal problems, and when you just take a social problem and you put it in prison, you might allege that you ‘clean the streets,’ but you have solved absolutely nothing, and on the contrary, you’ve made it worse,” Joyal says.
Rather than gutting the bill, as the Conservatives have alleged, Joyal feels that the amendments allowed for judicial discretion for a greater appreciation of the individual circumstances of the accused.
The costs of the mandatory minimums were also a concern for Senators at the time — concerns that have since come to light in the Commons.
Testimony from Correctional Services of Canada described the present conditions of the prison system, with an increase in the level of murders, HIV infections and incidents of aggression.
Joyal says that the Liberals in the Senate are concerned that an overcrowded prison system will see a return to the “mutinies” seen in prisons 30 years ago, as well as the fact that the highest number of inmates are of aboriginal origin.
Down the hall in the Commons, the NDP are clearly opposed to the bill, and have come up with new cost figures as well. NDP justice critic Joe Comartin says that the Minister of Justice has confirmed that they are budgeting $33.5 million over the next five years for this bill.
“That’s additional prosecutors being hired and the rest of it,” Comartin says, noting that this doesn’t even touch the prison costs.
NDP House Leader Libby Davies is taking the lead on the bill, and says the bill is so bad that it should be defeated. She hopes the Liberals will also work to fight it.
“We don’t need this bill,” says Davies. “There’s an illusion out there that somehow without this bill there’s no enforcement. All of the enforcement regime exists; this is about a mandatory minimum. This bill is expensive, unnecessary and in fact would be harmful.”
Davies says that if they can’t defeat the bill, she will work to amend it rather than see the bill pass as is.
As for the Liberal position in the Commons, it has not yet been finalized, and a spokesperson for the party says that until they feel there is more movement on the bill, they will reserve comment.
But the fact that Harper reintroduced the bill into the Senate, where the Conservatives have a plurality of votes, was clearly a political calculation. As well, Conservative Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, an expert on illegal drugs, is no longer on the committee that will study the bill, and all Conservative members were Harper appointees.