Prime Minister Stephen Harper has announced a two-pronged anti-drug campaign, focusing on prevention for users and harsher penalties for producers.

At the heart of the announcement was the introduction of mandatory sentences for people convicted of serious drug charges.

"Currently there are no minimum prison sentences for producing and trafficking dangerous drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine," Harper said Thursday. "These are serious crimes. Those who commit them should do serious time."

The announcement was part of a strategy providing $63.8 million over two years to prevent illegal drug use in young people, treat people who have drug addictions and fight illegal drug crime.

The new law, to be introduced by the minority government when Parliament resumes in October, was touted as a balance between prevention and punishment.

Harper outlined the plan in Winnipeg alongside Health Minister Tony Clement and Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day.

Harper said about two-thirds of the new funding will go towards prevention and treatment for those caught in the world of drugs and want to get out.

"Interdiction by itself is not going to be enough," Harper said. "We need new laws to free them from drugs when they get hooked."

Harper said for too long, governments had sent "mixed messages" about the prohibition of drugs, referring to a failed Liberal-government motion to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana possession.

"It's time to get straight with Canadians so Canadians can get straight, because narcotics destroy lives," he said.

Funding for prevention

On Thursday, Clement praised the announcement for focusing on the safety of Canada's children.

"One day they'll grow up to be successful adults," he said. "But sadly, all of this could be put at risk when young people are offered drugs before they are mature enough to grasp the magnitude of the consequences of their actions."

He said the new policy will put an emphasis on educating Canadians, especially young people and their parents, about the negative effects of illicit drugs.

Prevention and treatment methods to be financed include:

  • A national awareness campaign targeted at youth and parents
  • Modernization of treatment services
  • Development of new treatment options
  • Expansion of treatment programs for addicted youth
  • New funding for provinces and territories to expand rehabilitation facilities
  • New funding for a National Youth Intervention Program, so police can get young drug users more quickly into assessment and treatment programs

The government will also invest $9.6 million per year with The Community Initiatives Fund, which will offer financial assistance to communities and organizations that address factors that lead to illicit drug use, Clement said.

During the announcement, Harper said that the government currently spends $1.2 billion each year on substance abuse programs. Regardless of this, drug use among teens and young people is rising.

Funding for punishment

Thursday's announcement included $21.6 million to fund the battle against drug producers and traffickers, Day said.

The Conservative government said tens of billions in dollars worth of drug profits are used to fund other criminal activities, making drug trafficking a highly lucrative business in Canada that fuels personal greed by exploiting the addictions of other people.

"There are people out there who know very well what they're doing," Day said. "They are very cognizant that they destroy lives, and that does not stop them from what they do."

Along with mandatory minimum sentences, new steps will include:

  • More funding for officers and prosecutors focused on drug crime
  • More resources for identifying and closing down grow-ops and manufacturing sites
  • Cracking down on drug smuggling across the border, including better awareness for border officers
  • New legislation to control substances and chemicals commonly used in drug production

Canada will also share information with officers in Seattle and New York in relation to the cross-border drug trade, Day said.

Harper did not outline what the mandatory minimums would be, or what serious drug offences they would be implemented against.

He said that would be done by the health minister closer to its announcement in parliament.

Marijuana use

The Conservatives quashed a bill from the previous Liberal government decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana shortly after coming to power last year -- despite support for the resolution in the House of Commons from every other party.

Since then, drug-related arrests have spiked dramatically across the country with a number of Canadian cities reporting arrest increases by more than one-third.

Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa and Halifax all reported increases of between 20 and 50 per cent in 2006 of arrests for possession of cannabis, compared with 2005 statistics.

Police forces claim many people believed the Liberal bill had passed, prompting users to spark up in public without fear of reprisal.

As a result, thousands of people were charged with criminal offences that would have been classified as a misdemeanour under the previous Liberal government.

Legal experts argued earlier this year that inconsistencies in Canada's marijuana laws made it difficult for the justice system to handle the sudden influx of possession cases brought before the courts under the Conservative government's new focus on enforcement.

Other critics claim the crackdown on marijuana is a waste of taxpayers' money and some drug-dependency experts have also challenged the notion that the substance is a 'gateway' to harder drugs.

They argue that marijuana actually keeps users from experimenting with other drugs.

With files from The Canadian Press