The Conservative government unveiled legislation yesterday to create the first mandatory prison terms in Canada for people convicted of trafficking illicit drugs.
The proposed changes are the newest chapter in the Harper government's sweeping crackdown on crime, which includes bills before Parliament to toughen rules for repeat violent offenders, to keep accused young offenders in jail before their trials and now to impose automatic prison penalties on serious drug offenders.
Canada's Controlled Drugs and Substances Act contains no mandatory prison sentences for anyone convicted under the act. Judges use their own discretion about whether to send drug pushers and growers to jail.
However, the new bill proposes measures including a one-year mandatory jail term for dealing drugs while using a weapon, or for dealing drugs in support of organized crime; a two-year mandatory term for dealing cocaine, heroin or methamphetamines to young people, or for dealing them near a school or any place young people are known to frequent; and a mandatory six-month sentence for growing as little as one marijuana plant for the purposes of trafficking.
When the government announced plans for the antidrug bill last month, Liberal and New Democratic Party critics said the Conservatives were embracing a U.S.-style "war on drugs" that treats drug abuse as more of a criminal matter than a health issue. Opposition MPs said the government should focus more on harm-reduction programs, such as safe-injection sites and needle exchanges.
The Conservatives are also proposing to allow judges to exempt certain offenders from mandatory prison terms, on condition that they complete drug treatment court programs.
Drug treatment courts are designed to help non-violent offenders overcome their drug habits if they have trafficked in small amounts of drugs to support their addictions.
Rob Nicholson, the Minister of Justice, said yesterday the changes in the sentencing provisions are designed to target the people the government considers at the root of the drug supply problem: large-scale growers and traffickers, organized crime groups that finance their operations through drugs, and people who push drugs on children and teenagers.
"We've made it very clear that those individuals who are in the business of exploiting other people through organized crime and other aggravating factors -- through this bill, we want to get serious with those individuals and send the right message to them ... you will be doing jail time," he said. "We want to put organized crime out of business in this country."
But one expert says the changes will only help organized crime groups do more business in Canada.
"Tougher penalties for people who produce and traffic drugs will only scare the ma-and-pa producers, and organized crime will fill the gap," says Eugene Oscapella, a criminal lawyer who teaches drug policy at the University of Ottawa and once advised the Law Reform Commission of Canada on the issue.
"Organized crime doesn't care about the law. With these changes, this government is doing a service for organized crime."
Mr. Oscapella says decades of experience with tough, mandatory penalties in the United States have proven that the threat of prison terms doesn't deter drug traffickers or growers, just as similar policies never deterred organized criminals and illegal bootleggers during the U.S. prohibition on alcohol.
He says a better way to tackle the drug problem is to treat it as a health issue, and deal with the social factors behind people's addictions.
Mr. Nicholson says the government is doing exactly that, alongside its law-and-order changes.
He says the new sentencing legislation is part of the government's national antidrug strategy, announced last month, which includes programs run by Health Canada to prevent and treat drug addictions.
While the government was revealing its drug plans, a Commons committee passed its signature crime bill without amendment.
The committee finished a clause-by-clause study of Bill C-2, known as the Tackling Violent Crime Act, an omnibus of five crime bills that died when the last session of the current Parliament ended on Sept. 14. The bill was reintroduced when the House reconvened a month ago.
The bill increases mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes and impaired driving, and creates two new indictable offences -- robbery to steal a firearm and breaking and entering to steal a firearm.
As well, it requires those convicted of three or more serious sexual or violent offences to prove why they should not be jailed indefinitely, and institutes a similar reverse onus for bail for those accused of firearm offences.
It also raises the age at which youths may engage in non-exploitive sexual activity to 16 from 14.
In an extraordinary move, all four parties agreed last month to give the committee until midnight Thursday to finish its deliberations. Though the three opposition parties proposed amendments, most were ruled out of order and none were approved. Third reading is expected before the House rises on Dec. 14.
Proposed Drug Laws
Legislation proposed yesterday by the Conservative party includes the following new measures:
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