OTTAWA -- A federal bill to impose automatic jail terms for drug crimes, for the first time in Canada, is headed for passage in the House of Commons in a final vote that could happen as early as Thursday.
If the proposed legislation succeeds as anticipated, judges will be stripped of their discretion on whether or not to incarcerate drug traffickers, including offenders who grow and then sell as few as five marijuana plants.
The bill was lambasted by 13 of the 16 witnesses who appeared before the House of Commons justice committee during public hearings this spring.
Two American critics warned minimum mandatory sentences for drug crimes have flooded U.S. prisons in the last 25 years, with a disproportionate effect on drug addicts, the poor, the young, blacks and other minorities.
The U.S. surpasses every other country by far in incarceration rates, and yet the drug business there has flourished.
"This will take us down the road of the U.S. experience, which has been a failure," said New Democrat Libby Davies, whose party will vote against the bill in a third and final reading in the Commons, expected this week or next. The Bloc Quebecois will also oppose it.
The Liberals, who teamed up with the Conservatives to successfully usher the bill through the justice committee, will vote in favour, said MP Brian Murphy.
"These are trafficking offences, these are people who are in the commercial business of selling drugs," said Mr. Murphy. "If you're convicted of trafficking in drugs, Ibelieve you should do the time that is indicated in this bill."
But Davies accused the Liberals of supporting a bill they know is bad because "they don't want to appear to be soft on crime."
The Conservatives have defended their proposals - a centrepiece of the government's tough-on-crime agenda -as a necessary tool to fight organized crime by sending the message that drug criminals will be treated harshly.
Several witnesses warned the justice committee the proposed legislation will fill jails with drug addicts rather than drug kingpins, who will continue to thrive, while small-time dealers are knocked out of commission.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, when questioned at the committee, declined to supply any evidence from other countries that mandatory minimum sentences have made any difference in deterring drug crime.
Nicholson asserted that the proposed legislation is a smart response to a public outcry to crack down on the growing scourge of drugs.
"I can tell you, there is support for this bill from many ordinary Canadians who are quite concerned about drug abuse," he said.
The bill would impose one-year mandatory jail terms for marijuana-dealing when it's linked to organized crime or a weapon is involved.
Minimum sentences would be increased to two years for dealing drugs, such as cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine, to young people, or pushing drugs near a school or other places frequented by youths.
That means an 18-year-old who shared cocaine or heroin with a 17-year-old friend could be jailed for at least one year, and small-time addicts who are convicted of pushing drugs near youth hangouts would automatically go to prison.
The bill would impose six-month minimum jail terms for growing five to 200 marijuana plants to sell, and two years for larger growers.
Judges would have leeway to exempt certain offenders, provided they enter drug-court treatment programs that exist in several cities.
The expected passage of the new penalties comes at a time when several American states, most recently New York, have retreated from mandatory minimum sentences, amid mounting evidence they don't make a difference in curtailing the drug trade.
Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in the U.S., told the justice committee the "essence of the ineffectiveness"of U.S. drug laws is that prosecutors have focused on incarcerating the small-scale dealers, thus detracting from catching the high-level traffickers.
"The Congress set low levels, and that has resulted in this misallocation of resources," he said.
The federal government has provided no estimates on how much it would cost to imprison more inmates for drug crimes in Canada. Much of the cost will be incurred by provincial governments, which are responsible for jails, where prisoners serve sentences of less than two years.
There are already more than two dozen minimum prison terms in the Criminal Code, mainly for murder and offences involving firearms.
June 3, 2009