Last week in Ottawa, Canada’s parliament finished passage of the most sweeping changes to the country’s criminal justice system in almost 40 years. Although a growing chorus of voices have called for reforms to Canada’s drug policy that reduce the emphasis on law enforcement and incarceration, the new package of laws from the governing Conservative party move in the opposite direction, reinforcing strict criminal penalties as the centerpiece of Canada’s drug policy.
Officially entitled the “Safe Streets and Communities Act,” the omnibus crime bill comprises over 100 pages of measures that, among other things, toughen the correctional system and increase punishments against convicted human traffickers, child pornographers and members of crime syndicates. Pushed through parliament in under 100 days, the bill’s most controversial sections create mandatory minimum sentences for individuals convicted of possessing even small amounts of illicit drugs, including cannabis.
“Eighty percent of my students are criminals under this legislation,” observed Eugene Oscapella, a criminology professor and founding member of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy, at an event opposing the crime bill last fall. “About 10 to 20 percent of them would be liable to a mandatory minimum sentence in a federal penitentiary of two years for simply passing a tab of ecstasy at a party.”
Just as mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes ushered in the era of mass incarceration in the United States, the omnibus crime bill will swell the number of people incarcerated in Canada’s already overcrowded federal penitentiaries. Space for 2,700 new inmates — a jump of almost 20% — is being built at a cost of over $2-billion. The non-partisan official in charge of estimating the cost of government programs estimates the crime bill will more than double the funds required to Canada’s prison systems from $4.3 billion in 2009/2010 to $9.5 billion in 2015/2016.
The influx of new inmates is likely to exacerbate existing problems within Canada’s federal prisons. Poor access to mental health care, including treatment for alcohol and drug misuse, has already been the subject of a scathing report by the system’s independent ombudsman. Many rehabilitative programs in the federal prison system have been stripped out as part of the crime bill’s reforms. For people who inject drugs, who already face high levels of incarceration, exposure to prisons has been linked to higher risk of infection with HIV as a result of the persistent refusal of officials to trial evidence-based measures such as prison-based needle exchange.
Although Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper says his government is “acting on a clear mandate of the people,” recent opinion polls have shown that many Canadians support reform of drug laws, especially those criminalizing cannabis use. In one poll of residents of the western province of British Columbia, over three-quarters disagreed with making marijuana use a criminal offense. The move to mandatory minimums, especially as other jurisdictions are experimenting with decriminalizing illicit drug use, has been criticized by a diverse coalition of scientists, healthcare providers and former politicians. In light of growing violence associated with the port city’s multi-billion dollar drug trade, four former mayors of Vancouver from across the political spectrum signed an open letter urging policymakers to consider new ways to regulate illicit drugs. “Marijuana prohibition is, without question, a failed policy,” they wrote.
Although the prime minister won a legislative battle this week, the outcome of the war over drug policy remains uncertain. On the political front, many of the country’s provincial and municipal leaders, who pay the bills for the country’s jails and prisons, courts and police forces, are not in favor of stiffened drug penalties. Canada’s courts, who recently ruled in favor of Insite, Vancouver’s supervised injection facility, will surely be called on to assess the constitutionality of mandatory minimums. In the court of public opinion, it is hard to imagine that the number of Canadians who want drug use to be treated as a health issue, and not a crime, will do anything but rise.