OTTAWA — Under Canada's proposed new drug laws, an 18-year-old who shares a joint with a 17-year-old friend could end up in jail.
Small-time addicts, who are convicted of pushing drugs near schools, parks, malls or any other prospective youth hangouts, would be automatically imprisoned for two years.
And growers caught selling even one plant to a friend would also be incarcerated.
The Harper government's bill to impose Canada's first mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug crimes — removing discretion for judges to sentence as they see fit — has come under intense scrutiny in public hearings, which began last week.
Several witnesses have warned the House of Commons 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.
The all-party committee will likely get an earful again Monday when it hears from another half dozen opponents, including Ottawa drug policy analyst Eugene Oscapella.
"It's a wonderful gift to organized crime," said Oscapella, a lawyer who teaches at University of Ottawa.
"We're going to drive some of the smaller players out of the business and they'll be replaced by people who do not respond to law enforcement initiatives."
The Conservative government proposes to automatically jail dealers and growers at a time when several American states, most recently New York, have retreated from mandatory minimum sentences, saying they are a glaring symbol of the failed U.S. war on drugs.
"We're going in exactly the opposite direction," said New Democrat Libby Davies, MP for Vancouver East, whose party will vote against the bill.
The Bloc Quebecois also opposes the legislation, which was originally introduced in late 2007, but died last September when the federal election was called.
The bill would pass in the minority Parliament if the official Opposition Liberals decide to support it — and MP Brian Murphy cautioned that "the jury is still out" for his party.
"The aim of the bill is laudable, we have to crack down on organized crime and the cash cow for it seems to be drugs," said Murphy.
The Liberals, at this stage, would probably push for amendments to narrow the bill's reach, rather than vote against it, he said.
The United States experience in the last 25 years has shown that mandatory minimum sentences have flooded jails, 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, meanwhile, the drug business has flourished.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, who appeared at the justice committee to defend his bill, was unable to supply any evidence from other countries that mandatory minimum sentences have made any difference in reducing drug crime. Two studies prepared for the Justice Department, one in 2002 and the other in 2005, say that mandatory minimums do not work.
But 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," said Nicholson, who called for expedited passage of the legislation.
Davies has unsuccessfully challenged the government to supply estimates on how many more people would be incarcerated if the law passes, and the anticipated cost for provincial governments, who are responsible for jails housing offenders serving sentences of less than two years.
"It's going to clog up the prison system," she warned.
Critics also contend the bill is poorly drafted because it is overly broad and unclear. For instance, the proposal to automatically imprison for at least two years anyone caught selling drugs "near a school" or "any other public place usually frequented by persons under the age of 18" could mean virtually anywhere in an urban area, says the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
"Any place other than those where minors are not permitted could fall under that legislation and thus require a two-year minimum sentence be imposed," Graeme Norton, director of the group's public safety project, told the committee.
The proposed legislation would impose one-year mandatory jail time for marijuana dealing, when it is linked to organized crime or a weapon is involved.
The sentence 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.
The bill would mean minimum six-month sentences for growing one to 200 marijuana plants to sell, and two years for big-time growers of 500 plants or more.
There are already more than two dozen minimum prison terms in the Criminal Code, mainly for murder and offenses involving firearms.
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