By Amie Gravell
The Safe Streets and Communities Act, what we know as bill C-10 (also bill S-10 and C-15 in other incarnations), had both previous versions of the bill died in the house due to prorogation of the Government of Canada for the Prime Minister’s benefit, or due to the call for an election. This act would amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, with intent of targeting organized crime. Apparently, the Harper Government believes that organized crime is afraid of jail time, as opposed to accepting jail time as a job risk. Bill C-10 lays out a number of minimum sentences that would set the most lenient punishments for a host of crimes to mandatory prison sentences; it also extends maximum prison sentences for many charges.
The Department of Justice <www.justice.gc.ca> has a backgrounder on the Safe Streets and Communities Act which is one of the sources for this article. This article is only going to cover changes to existing marijuana laws, but the bill is divided into changes to laws relating to schedule I drugs (cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, etc.) and changes to schedule II drugs, which is just marijuana.
The proposed sentences are as follows: trafficking and possession for the purpose of trafficking (over 3 kg) will only have a minimum sentence in certain situations. The offences carry a minimum one year term in prison if the offence is committed with violence, for organized crime, by a person who was previously convicted for or served a term of imprisonment for a designated drug offense in the previous 10 years, or by someone who abused authority/position or abused access to a restricted area to commit the offense of importation/exportation, as well as possession to export. The minimum sentence for these offences would increase to two years if the offence is committed in a prison, in a school (or anywhere near youths for that matter), with a youth or to a youth. Importing or exporting marijuana, or possession with intent to export (it should be added that there is no distinction made between possession for trafficking and possession for export) carries a minimum sentence of one year without any aggravating factors.
None of the aggravating factors for trafficking affect the minimum sentencing for marijuana production, however, minimum sentences must be increased by half the original term if the offence violates proposed health and safety factors. Such health and safety factors include growing in a rented house, with children in the house or in the immediate area, in a residential area, or if the accused set a trap. Growing between six and 200 plants carries a minimum sentence of six months, nine with health and safety factors; 201 to 500 plants is one year or 18 months; over 500 plants is two to three years. Production of oil or hashish is a minimum one year sentence, or 18 months with health and safety factors. More disturbing than this, the current maximum sentence for these offences is seven years, which bill C-10 seeks to double, making the maximum sentence for growing any number of plants 14 years.
C-10 is about sentencing. Minimum sentences are an attempt to change our legal system when the laws within it don’t seem to be working to the people with the power to make change. We all know the war on drugs, as it stands now, isn’t working. There are two options once we recognize that our path isn’t working: stricter adherence to the path, or finding a new path. The people behind this bill obviously believe that the actions they’re prohibiting are worthy of jail time without any aggravating factors, because there are a host of aggravating factors provided and accounted for with extra minimum sentencing. This bill, as it is written, stands to cost Canada needless dollars, harm a great deal of people, and any good that comes of it will be tainted with the broken lives of citizens. This is a bold statement, but it is true. There are very poor estimates for the number of Canadian citizens that quietly have a grow going on the side to save on the cost of their medicine (or for pleasure), or to make some extra cash to help themselves and their families get by. Some growers are growing for a lot of extra cash, but they wouldn’t be doing that if the price of marijuana wasn’t inflated by the risk of legal retribution. People looking to make a lot of money growing probably feel this legislation will be good for business. This is part of the continuing nonsensicality of the war on drugs. The people who are publicly targeted by the war on drugs (drug cartels, gangs) actually benefit from the legislation against them and want the prices to go up. The people the war on drugs claims not to be targeting—families, medical users, and small timers—find their otherwise uneventful lives turned upside down by the added risks of cannabis being a valuable commodity.
This government doesn’t seem interested in listening to anyone, particularly not the specialists, experts, and even politicians that have come out in spades against mandatory minimum sentences. Indeed, it seems that Harper doesn’t feel he can trust the judicial system to make the rulings he wants for his vision of Canada. The unanimous Insite ruling on Sept. 30, 2011, showed that even the judges Mr. Harper personally appointed to the Supreme Court, Justices Cromwell and Rothstein, are not aligned exactly to the Harper Government’s idea of what Canadian law should be. If Mr. Harper cannot trust Canada’s judges to do his bidding, he seems content to force them to send people to jail in spite of what choices the judges’ education or experience might otherwise inform.
This is a double edged sword for those of us seeking legalization for cannabis. The most pressing concern is the number of people whose lives will be affected by this legislation. We’re making space in our prisons, and that space is not going to last long when judges don’t have a choice about who goes to jail and who doesn’t. Nixon bragged about building prisons in the 1970s, and now the United States has the largest number of incarcerated citizens in the world. Bill C-10 largely targets growers, who haven’t always faced prison time, and because the sentences are mandatory, non-violent offenders gain nothing from their non-violent status. For this reason, everyone loses in this game except the people that would be going to jail anyway. Drug cartels and career dealers will have a great year if this legislation is passed, as small timers and people trying to pad their income are forced out of the business by increased risk. Some people will stop growing entirely, some people will stop selling in an attempt to stay under police radar, and many people will go to jail.
The price will go up for all of us, even medicinal users, as people flee towards the medical system begging for safety. More and more people in Canada are trying to get into the medicinal system already, but many are unable to despite their need—due mostly to the unwillingness of doctors to sign on, or by lack of medical documentation. These people often find themselves on the wrong side of the law with no protection when they attempt to grow for themselves and are caught. Sadly, the medical program won’t provide everyone the safety they want; the changes to the MMAR program that seek to phase out personal and designated growing seem to fit quite well with the Harper Government’s attack on illegal growers. It’s hard not to feel as if the political right has us on the run more than ever.
The silver lining in this is the opposition. Canadians, on average, are not stupid. We can see the cost of these bills looming above us, and Ontario and Quebec have already refused to pay for this bill. Many people are against this legislation because they know this approach hasn’t worked in the past, because they feel growing marijuana should have penalties decreased not increased, or because they don’t believe growing, sharing, and using marijuana is worth the trouble of prohibition. Canadians already have the benefit of having seen the failure of harsher laws and penalties for drug crimes in the United States; if this legislation goes through, Canada will see the effects in their own back yards. “NIMBYism” may prove useful for the first time ever. Harmless horticulturists costing me money in prison? Not in my back yard.
By Amie Gravell