Tories may revive minimum pot sentences
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson gestures as he rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, April 23, 2010. (Pawel Dwulit / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The Canadian Press
Published Monday, May 3, 2010 6:29AM EDT
OTTAWA - The Tories are poised to revive a bill that would impose mandatory-minimum sentences on people convicted of growing small numbers of pot plants.
The Conservative government will re-introduce its drug bill this week in the Senate, as part of its continued re-tabling of tough-on-crime legislation that died when the last Parliament was prorogued.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson dropped broad hints Sunday that the new legislation would revive a controversial provision -- a mandatory six-month sentence for people convicted of growing as few as five pot plants.
The Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee altered the Conservative bill in December raising the minimum-sentence provision to convictions for 200 plants, while preserving a judge's discretion for lesser transgressions.
At the time, Nicholson criticized the Senate and the Liberals for the changes, but the legislative debate ended when Prime Minister Stephen Harper was able to prorogue Parliament. The prime minister stacked the Senate with additional Conservatives to give them a majority in the upper house over the Liberals.
Nicholson said with the Conservatives now in control of the Senate, he expects to get the drug bill passed quickly, as he originally intended it.
"All I'll say is I wasn't impressed by the amendments made in the Senate and again we will be introducing it into the Senate. The bill that we will introduce I'm confident will have a much better chance of passing," Nicholson told The Canadian Press in an interview Sunday.
"They watered down some of the provisions with respect to the penalties. They wanted a separate aboriginal system. And again we want the bill to apply to everybody. And the penalties we were comfortable with."
Nicholson wouldn't give specific details, except to say that, "there will be mandatory-sentencing provisions in the bill."
The December amendments also gave aboriginal convicts an exemption from the minimum-sentence provisions.
The Senate said it wanted to target kingpins and other major players in the drug trade, while giving judges more leeway in dealing with lesser offences.
Many analysts have warned that the Conservatives' tough-on-crime agenda would swell Canadian prisons, and create soaring new costs.
This past week, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said the federal price tag for legislation that would end two-for-one credit for time served in pre-custody would be at least $2 billion over five years. That was up from his earlier estimate of $90 million over two years.
Toews only gave that estimate after The Canadian Press reported that the cost could be as high as $10 billion over five years for federal and provincial governments.
Nicholson refused to be drawn into any discussion about the potential costs associated with the drug bill.
"What's the cost to victims when violent individuals are out on the street that shouldn't be?" the justice minister asked Sunday.
"It does cost money to incarcerate people and I believe that Canadians have been willing to pay those costs up to this point and they'll continue to do so. If we don't, then Canadians will be further victimized. That's what victims groups tell me all the time."
The Vancouver police department said it was "disturbed" by the amendments made by Liberal senators, saying they would lead to a proliferation of grow-ops with less than 200 plants.
But groups such as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health told the Senate committee last fall that mandatory-minimum sentences are a bad idea, saying drug dependency is a health issue, not a criminal justice matter.
The group told the committee that mandatory minimums have led to "ballooning" prison populations in the United States, and that several states were now focusing more on drug treatment programs.
The Conservatives have been critical of the Senate in the past for tinkering with legislation that was passed by the House of Commons.
"The bill will continue to focus on drug dealers and organized crime and that was the focus of the bill that I had in the Senate for over six months. This bill will be consistent with that," Nicholson said Sunday.
"It sends out the right message that if you get involved with drug dealing there's going to be serious consequences. It's consistent with what I've been told by law-enforcement agencies and my international counterparts that the people involved in dealing drugs are part of organized crime."
Nicholson said the government also planned this week to reintroduce its auto-theft bill in the Senate and would table a white-collar crime bill in the Commons.