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Feature: In Bold Step Backward, Canadian House of Commons Passes Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentencing Bill

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #589)
Drug War Issues
Politics & Advocacy

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.

C-15 hearings online video collection
Monday's vote came only after NDP and Bloc MPs filibustered the bill last week. But when one NDP member could not make it to parliament, the filibuster collapsed, and the Liberal Party leadership joined with the Conservatives in forcing a successful vote.

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.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Norman Lepoff,… (not verified)

I feel sorry for you, Canada.

Your people are going to needlessly suffer thanks to this.

Fri, 06/12/2009 - 1:49pm Permalink
AhappyCamper (not verified)

Do the math how come millions of us happy campers allow a handful (less than 100) of crappy campers decide for us and that their (crappy campers) going to toss us (happy campers) literally behind bars like common dogs just for enjoying pot. BS this is the 21st century let's toss their 20th century (crappy campers) asses in jail for a change! Period!!!

Fri, 06/12/2009 - 2:47pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Almost makes you want to believe in and go to hell... so we can witness the justice satan has planned for these miserable prohibitionist creatures.

I imagine most prohibitionists will be assigned the glorious duty of keeping satans ass and genitalia squeaky clean for all eternity. Now that's worth a prayer or 2!

If christian exceptianism continues to place them above constitutional law we'll be forced to pray that satan will hold them horribly accountable for their sins against man and his inalienable rights.

In fact I hate these haters so much i'd sell my own soul if satan would eradicate them's the least anyone could do for mankind!

Fri, 06/12/2009 - 6:16pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Could Canadian Crime Organizations Hope This Drug Prohibition Bill Passes?

Alcohol prohibition spawned much of the organized crime we have in America today. Canadian crime syndicates should be thrilled if this Canadian legislation passes enhancing criminal drug penalties, as that will drive up both the price for illegal drugs and profits for major Canadian and foreign illegal-drug suppliers.

Fri, 06/12/2009 - 8:19pm Permalink
lightning from OZ (not verified)

In his plan to take out the Religious bigots of his day who were breaching the rights of others (The Parliament). He did not have a remote controlled delivery system. A problem modern technology has overcome!!!!
Maybe it is time we reminded this bunch of bigots about the lessons of history. I hope the Senate in Canada blocks this bill for the sake of All Canadians.

Sat, 06/13/2009 - 12:01am Permalink
onegreenday (not verified)

I suspected that after Canada loved the near east wars they'd
jump on board a domestic one.
Nothing like a good war on your own people.
I can figure their mind wheels turning, thinking "forget foreigners. We don't even have to leave
Canada to screw over the world; we can do it right here, or we can do both. screw our own & the world.
Cause that's what they do screw over people.

Get boots on the ground and hit those Senators fast
and big time, get the press on this & pull out that Senate decrim proposal and get it in the news
Get the LTE's going.
I thought your gov had half a brain up there but
sadly corruption feasts everywhere.

Sun, 06/14/2009 - 8:49am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Hopefully C-15 will die in the senate as the government may be defeated prior to the royal assent of this odious legislation. I fear, however, that this is the only hope remaining for a reprieve. And even if a new government is successful, its character won't differ substantially from its Conservative predecessors. Michael Ignatieff, leader of Her Majesty's loyal opposition has in fact supported the government on virtually every piece of legislation that has hit the floor since the current ruling minority gained control. In Canada we need to support our social democrats, the New Democratic Party before anything progressive happens with our drug policy. Until then our jails will fill with hapless young drug offenders and street dealers and the drug war will grind on and on and on courtesy of corporate America and their shills, the Canadian Conservative and Liberal parties.

Mon, 06/15/2009 - 4:42am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

I would vote for NDP but honestly where i live (Norther western Ontario) it means nothing unless its the governing body. We are NDP now because of the whole forestry fiasco, our leader seems to have no balls to fight for it.

Tue, 06/16/2009 - 11:43pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

This bill has been in the works for well over a year and I was foolish enough to think about writing my MP about it.I know my (Liberal)MP opposed this bill and was quoted saying as much on TV news.Ignatieff,is an elitist who knows his kind can do whatever they want without fear of reprisal.His coronation as Liberal leader was born out of panic over his incompetent predecessor and puts the liberal party firmly entrenched on the right.I do think the senate will stall doing anything about this bill until after the summer break.They may toss it out .There is no doubt that this fascist government of Stephen Harper will be gone as soon as the fall session begins.Our only hope is that the NDP will hold the balance of power in a minority Liberal government.I would suggest every Canadian keep in touch with the party and insist that they come out against this and some of the other backward Conservative legislation.Harper panders to the most bitter and unforgiving people in the country.He has a religious ideology,which would be his business if he wasn't imposing his views on the whole country.He is still fighting the Vancouver needle exchange and safe injection sites.They banned smoking(tobacco)in prisons and now they want to fill them up with people growing a few plants.It's my understanding that one plant is enough to earn a mandatory minimum sentence.That may have been ammended but it shows the mentality that these people live with.

Thu, 06/18/2009 - 12:41am Permalink
Bobbert (not verified)

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson says the bill is aimed at "serious drug traffickers, the people who are basically out to destroy our society," How can he even say this with a straight face, five plants and your out to destroy society? Absurd, another grandstanding politician.,

Wed, 09/02/2009 - 5:59pm Permalink

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