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June 4, 2009 -- Edmonton Journal (CN AB)

Canada: Mandatory Jail For Drug Crimes Nears Passage

Tougher Sentences Have Flooded U.S. Prisons As Trafficking Continues Unabated

By Janice Tibbetts, Canwest News Service

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

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 today.

If the proposed legislation succeeds as anticipated, judges will be stripped of their discretion on whether 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 Murphy. "If you're convicted of trafficking in drugs, I believe 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.

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 said that the proposed legislation is a smart response to a public outcry to crack down on the 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.

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