Canada's Conservative minority government hopes the third time is the charm for its controversial measure to increase sentences for marijuana cultivation and introduce mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses. Now known as S-10, the measure will be taken up by the Senate when it returns from recess at end of next month.
Under the bill, anyone growing six or more plants for the purpose of drug trafficking could face a mandatory minimum six month jail sentence, with a one-year mandatory minimum for up to 200 plants and two years for up to 500 plants. Hash makers also face a one-year mandatory minimum.
The mandatory minimum sentences could be increased by half if any of a number of aggravating factors are claimed. These include whether a weapon was found on the premises, if minors were involved, if the location was unsafe, and whether pot production posed a danger to the public in a residential area.
The Conservatives' bill comes even as crime rates in Canada have fallen to a 30-year low and with majorities supporting marijuana legalization in recent polls.
"This is a terrible bill," said Jacob Hunter of Why Prohibition?, a web site set up by opponents of the bill to encourage online activism and social networking to defeat it. "I think the single worst provision is the 18-month mandatory minimum for making one pot brownie if the police can show you shared it with friends."
"The Conservatives have less than a third of the popular vote, and they think they have a mandate for these draconian measures," said Eugene Oscapella, an Ottawa law professor and head of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy.
Last year's version of the bill, known as C-15, made it through the House of Commons with the support of the Liberals, but was softened slightly by Liberals in the Senate. But before the amended measure could pass, Prime Minister Harper ended the parliamentary session, killing the bill for the year.
In power since the 2006 elections, the Conservatives have been unable to win enough seats to form a majority government. Right now, the Conservatives hold 143 seats of the 307 in the House of Commons, with the Liberals holding 103, the Bloc Quebecois 51, and the New Democrats (NDP) 51.
That means the Conservatives are once again going to have to win over members of other parties to pass S-10. With the NDP and the Bloc both in solid opposition, the Conservatives will have to pick up support from the Liberals, but whether they will be able to do so remains to be seen. Last time, Liberal support got the bill over the top in the House, but this year, the Liberals are preparing for a possible called election in the fall or winter and may have had an infusion of spine-stiffener on the issue.
"The Liberals are running around like the cowardly lion," said Oscapella, who expressed dismay at their lack of principle. "There is no sign yet that they are doing anything other than kowtowing to the government on this issue."
"Last time the Liberals did support C-15 in the House, but modified and delayed it in the Senate," said Hunter, who was slightly more positive about the Liberals. "They were terrified of being soft on crime. This time, I'm hearing the Liberals won't be so easily cowed. They feel they can counter the soft on crime attack by attacking the Conservatives on cost. It will be a purely political decision for the Liberals."
Noting that the parliamentary budget office has set the price-tag of S-10 at $10 billion, Hunter said the high cost would be a wedge to use against the bill. "This has emboldened the opposition to attack the Conservative's law and order crime agenda as too costly," he said. "Plus, crime is a historic low, and these mandatory minimum policies have been tried in the US to poor effect."
In the Senate, Conservatives do have an outright majority of 54 of 105 Senate seats -- if the two Progressive Conservative senators are counted. The Liberals have 49 seats, and there are two independents. Conservative strength in the Senate may explain why the Harper government decided to place S-10 in the Senate instead of the House of Commons.
Opponents of S-10 are gathering their forces. They will have months or perhaps even a year to mobilize opposition as the bill moves through the parliamentary process.
"There is a lot of opposition to this bill in the media, which is coming out strongly against mandatory minimums and in favor of ending the war on drugs," noted Oscapella. "Yet the government wants to plow ahead. Faced with strong opposition, the more adamant they are that they will succeed," he said.
"This is all the more depressing because for years, the excuse was that the US would never let us do drug reform," the Ottawa attorney continued. "Now the rhetoric and the attitude in the US is changing, and this would be a time for us to move forward, but we're set to move backward. It's like George Bush came to Canada."
NDP MP Libby Davies, the party's drug policy critic, has been a stalwart in the fight against earlier incarnations of the bill and is likely to do so again. While, the East Vancouver MP was out of the office this week, Davies spoke out against the new bill back in May when it was introduced.
"I have been working at every turn to stop this failed, George Bush style war-on-drugs Bill that proposes mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes," Davies said. "My NDP colleagues and I voted a resounding no when this bill was introduced in the House as Bill C-15, but it was passed with the support of the Liberal Party. Now we have a second chance to stop this wrong-headed and costly legislation. The Conservatives’ iron fisted approach that criminalizes drug users is taking Canada in the wrong direction."
Why Prohibition? and other activist groups are preparing protests across Canada on October 2, as well as bombarding parliament and the government with messages opposing S-10. And that will be just the beginning of the campaign.
It looks like the Liberals hold the key to whether S-10 passes or fails. In the months ahead, expect the pressure on them to increase dramatically. And let's hope for the Conservatives that instead of third time is the charm, it's three strikes and you're out.