Bowing to the wishes of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Liberal Party Members of Parliament (MPs) joined Monday with Harper's Conservatives to pass the controversial C-15 mandatory minimum sentencing drug offense bill. The bill was opposed by MPs of the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Bloc Québécois.
It also came after committee hearings on C-15 in which 13 of 16 witnesses, including criminal justice, health, and harm reduction experts, testified against the bill. Among them was US Criminal Justice Policy Foundation head Eric Sterling, who drafted mandatory minimum legislation for Congress as House Judiciary Committee counsel in the 1980s and saw the flawed politics firsthand.
The bill next goes to the Canadian Senate. Unlike the US, Canadian senators are appointed, not elected, and the Canadian Senate typically -- but not always -- defers to the House. Observers hold out some hope that in this case, the Senate, which called for the legalization of marijuana in a 2002 report, will seek to block or amend the bill. The Senate could also effectively kill the bill by refusing to act on it before new elections are called.
Under the measure, mandatory minimum sentences would be enacted for a number of drug offenses, including an automatic six-month jail term for growing as few as five marijuana plants. Growing more than five plants would earn a mandatory minimum two-year sentence, and mandatory minimum sentences would also be in effect for other drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamine.
The tough sentences are aimed at "serious drug traffickers, the people who are basically out to destroy our society," said Justice Minister Rob Nicholson in the run-up to passage of the bill. But critics charged the bill would end up targeting low-level first offenders and filling Canada's prisons with them.
"I think it is really bad news," MP Libby Davies (NDP-Vancouver East) told Vancouver's Cannabis Culture magazine. "The evidence shows very, very strongly -- overwhelmingly -- that mandatory minimum sentencing is not an effective policy when it comes to drug crime. My fear is that we are going to see more people in jail, and more people fighting charges because they know they will be facing a mandatory minimum sentence. That means more court time and more backlogs."
"Mid and upper-level traffickers will get no particular increase in punishment, because a major dealer would already get six months or a year for any kind of trafficking," said Vancouver marijuana activist and Cannabis Culture publisher Marc Emery. "What we're going to see is people who wouldn't normally go to jail, they're going to be the people affected. It's going to be largely young people in schoolyards -- because if you are dealing around a school, it's an enhanced penalty. The enhanced penalties of six months, a year, two years, are going to affect, almost exclusively, people under the age of 25."
"The criminal justice approach has not only failed to achieve its initial goal of lowering drug use and availability, it has exacerbated the problem," said Jacob Hunter, policy director of the newly formed Beyond Prohibition Foundation. "The committee was presented with more than 50 scientific studies that stated this unequivocally, but the Conservative Party ignored that evidence, talking instead about the victims of crime. It is obvious from the evidence that C-15 will increase the violence and crime on our streets, almost exclusively target low-level and addicted dealers, and do so at great cost to families and taxpayers. Instead of repeating the costly mistakes of the past, we ought to go in a new direction."
Liberal Party opposition could have blocked the bill, but the party instead supported it for political reasons, said Hunter. "The Liberals are afraid of losing votes in suburban and rural ridings and don't know how to counter accusations of being 'soft on crime,'" he said. "Most Liberals are aware of the evidence on C-15, and indeed there was apparently lively disagreement in caucus over support for the bill, but ultimately, the Liberal leadership opted to support the bill."
Hunter was hopeful, but not optimistic, that the Senate would act to block passage of C-15. "It's tough to know what will happen, with many Senators vowing to fight this bill as long as it takes, the Senate has rarely blocked a bill passed by the House of Commons," he said.
But at this point, decisive action -- or inaction -- in the Senate is all that stands between Canada and the embrace of mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses. Too bad Canada's Conservatives, who are playing from an outdated US playbook, refuse to learn the lessons of the failures of such policies south of the border. And too bad the Liberals are so craven and cowed that they know better, but vote for such measures for the sake of political expediency.