Pubdate: Wed, 16 Jan 2008
Source: Eye Weekly (CN ON)
Copyright: 2008 Eye Communications Ltd.
Author: Saada Branker
Bookmark: (Marijuana - Medicinal - Canada)
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)
Bookmark: (Harm Reduction)
Bookmark: (Heroin)
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)
Bookmark: (Treatment)


In presenting the government's anti-drug plan in October, Prime 
Minister Stephen Harper never called it a "War on Drugs." But he 
talked tough about "breaking Canada's drug habit," and Justice 
Minister Rob Nicholson punctuated that sentiment by proposing a bill 
aimed at invoking mandatory jail sentences for drug offenders. 
Immediately, critics sounded off on what they saw as a host of 
inherent flaws in the government's whole approach to illicit drugs. 
One common strain of criticism pointed out that this is a familiar 
strategy once embraced by American policy-makers.

Ironically, with drug-related crime still rampant and overcrowding in 
prisons in some states, mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes 
is currently under review in the US. Yet, despite the failures of 
Washington's drug policy, the Tories are determined that the 
American-styled law-and-order approach to drugs will work in Canada.

To help rid the country of "its complacent attitude toward illicit 
drugs," the Conservatives committed $63.8 million over two years to 
fund more enforcement, prevention and treatment programs, 
conspicuously dropping an important component known as harm reduction 
in the process. That's a problem, say opponents of the government. 
The public-health alternatives derived from harm reduction, they say, 
would yield positive, long-term results for drug users aE" addicts 
who often deal drugs to support their dependency. Some of the 
different approaches being encouraged include treating drug use and 
abuse primarily as public health issues and not criminal ones; 
legalizing marijuana in order to emasculate a potent black market 
built on its illegal trade; and setting up harm-reduction initiatives 
similar to those that already exist for tobacco and alcohol. But if 
any of these alternatives are worth exploring, the Conservatives 
don't appear keen on doing it.

The bill in question proposes amending the Controlled Drugs and 
Substances Act (CDSA) so that a range of minimum penalties for drug 
offences will give judges rigid sentencing guidelines. (Retired 
Quebec judge John Gomery likened the legislation to "a slap in the 
face" for the judiciary.) If the bill passes, a one-year mandatory 
prison sentence will be imposed for drug-related crimes involving a 
weapon or violence; a two-year penalty will be required for dealing 
drugs like cocaine, heroin and meth to youth, or dealing near areas 
frequented by children; and running a marijuana grow-op of at least 
500 plants will lead to a mandatory minimum of two years. The maximum 
penalty for cannabis production would increase from seven to 14 
years.  Certain offenders who complete a Drug Treatment Court program 
will be exempted from facing mandatory prison time.

The new legislation is not going over well with Libby Davies, the NDP 
Deputy Leader and spokesperson on drug policy. She suggests the 
Conservatives' focus on enforcement ("scare tactics") at the expense 
of proper education and harm reduction is "very much ideologically driven."

"I think they're trying to fool people. That somehow getting tough on 
crime and taking this kind of approach is going to make communities 
safer," Davies says. She thinks the opposite will happen. "Mr. Harper 
is clearly wanting to adopt the US model of a war on drugs."

And what a model it is, say the critics. Twenty-two years ago, the US 
Congress enacted severe mandatory minimum penalties for crack-related 
offences. What resulted was unrelenting organized crime, increasing 
incarceration of so-called lower-level drug offenders and, 
ultimately, a disproportionate number of poor people, mainly 
African-Americans, being given unduly harsh sentences. Last month, 
the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of a return to more 
individualized sentences in drug cases, a retreat from the 1986 
national guidelines. The following day, the American Sentencing 
Commission voted unanimously to apply this leniency retroactively for 
almost 20,000 prisoners serving time on crack-related charges.

No one at the offices of the Health Minister Tony Clement or the 
Minister of Justice responded to requests for a telephone interview, 
but media officials provided written statements. GeneviA(ve Breton, 
director of communications for the justice minister's office, says 
the government's approach is designed to target serious drug 
offenders. "The proposed set of mandatory minimum penalties simply 
does not target minor drug offenders," writes Breton. "Only those 
drug traffickers who have aggravating factors in their cases, such as 
using violence or selling drugs near schools, will be eligible to 
receive the mandatory minimum sentence."

Like Davies, the executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal 
Network believes the Conservatives' approach fails to recognize that 
many drug offenders resort to crime to support their habit. Richard 
Elliott says the root problem is one of addiction and the 
consequences of a market that supplies that addiction.  "It's a 
health issue, and we keep throwing all these criminal law provisions 
at it, thinking this is somehow going to address that," says Elliott. 
His organization opposes mandatory minimum sentencing, and warns of 
overcrowding prisons with non-violent drug offenders who are also 
addicts. Such a move, it says, will worsen a public-health problem by 
increasing the risks of HIV and Hepatitis C transmissions. "We're not 
making a dent in drug markets: in fact, the sale and consumption of 
illegal drugs are steadily increasing. We are compounding the 
problems here and we're impeding health services for people that are 
much more likely to have an impact! ."

Because the federal government excludes harm reduction aE" a 
component of the original national drug strategy aE" from its 
anti-drug plan, the status of certain health services remains in 
limbo. Last month Health Canada refused to grant Insite, the 
country's lone supervised-injection site, its requested three-year 
renewal, opting instead on a six-month extension. In a September 2007 
press release, Tony Clement said that "the best form of harm 
reduction is to help addicts break the cycle of dependency." At a 
Canadian Medical Association meeting the health minister was quoted 
as saying, "Harm reduction, in a sense, takes many forms.  To me, 
prevention is harm reduction. Treatment is harm reduction. 
Enforcement is harm reduction."

Not so, said over 130 physicians and scientists who signed a petition 
the next day. It denounced the federal government for its 
"potentially deadly" misinformation on harm reduction programs. 
According to a report presented by a Toronto ad hoc committee for the 
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, "Harm reduction is any policy 
or program designed to reduce drug-related harm without requiring the 
cessation of drug use."

Toronto criminal lawyer and Osgoode Law professor Alan Young says 
drug dependency is a complicated issue. "You can't really use law to 
change the situation. People will always use drugs," he says. "So 
then the question becomes, what's the most responsive governmental 
approach to a situation that most people handle responsibly and some 
people destroy their lives with?"

Young, who for years has advocated the legalization of marijuana, 
says by resorting to criminal prohibition, governments create a black 
market. "When you take a criminal approach to the drug issue, you 
bring in a whole other Pandora's box of more serious crimes, and then 
the politicians blame the drugs, when in reality, it's their approach 
that is creating violence within the drug trade."

Davies says there is a role in a national drug strategy for 
enforcement, but "not to the obliteration of other initiatives like 
harm reduction." Bill C-26 still has to pass second reading in the 
House of Commons and then be debated by a parliamentary committee 
before the Senate looks at it.

Meanwhile, Davies pledges to keep up the campaign to save Insite, and 
to push for harm reduction programs throughout Canada.

"Whether it's alcohol, tobacco or substances that are illegal, the 
most important thing we can do for people is provide really solid 
education that is realistically frank," says Davies. "So when people 
do face substance-abuse issues like addiction or dependency, they 
actually receive medical help in a way that's accessible and focused 
on the user." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake