Conservatives say crackdown targets grow-ops and other `serious drug crime' in neighbourhoods

Nov 21, 2007 04:30 AM

Ottawa Bureau

OTTAWA The Conservative government has introduced automatic minimum jail terms of one to three years for serious drug crimes, as it targets grow-ops, organized crime and drug dealers or producers who exploit youths.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson introduced a bill to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to bring in a range of mandatory minimum penalties that would be jacked up if there were aggravating factors all in a bid to crack down on what he called a growing problem of "serious drug crime" that is "infiltrating" Canadian neighbourhoods.

Nicholson denied the Conservative government wants to limit judicial discretion or views judges as too lenient on drug offenders.

"Judges apply the laws that we have, but it's Parliament's job to set those guidelines, so we are living up to our responsibility to set those guidelines."

Among other things, the amendments provide:

A one-year mandatory sentence for dealing drugs like marijuana when there is a link to organized crime, or when a gun or the threat of violence is involved.

A two-year mandatory sentence for dealing hard drugs like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines to youths, or dealing near a school or area frequented by kids.

A two-year mandatory sentence for running a grow-op of at least 500 marijuana plants.

A higher maximum penalty for cannabis production to 14 years from seven.

Tougher penalties for trafficking in so-called date-rape drugs like GHB or flunitrazepam.

The bill would allow some offenders who qualify for drug treatment courts to escape the automatic jail terms if they are able to successfully complete a program of treatment under judicial supervision.

But Paul Welsch, director of Rideauwood Addiction and Family Services, who applauded the emphasis on the use of the drug treatment courts, said in an interview afterward that many drug offenders might not qualify for the exemption. The specialty court program is directed specifically at offenders whose crimes are non-violent or administrative (failures to follow court orders) and whose behaviour is driven by addiction often people with mental health problems or who are homeless.

Still, Welsch appeared with three Conservative ministers at the news conference to say the Conservative legislation "provides the right solution to the right problem."

Libby Davies, NDP spokesperson for drug reform policy, said the bill could be very costly because it will lead to higher prison populations.

"I think it's all about their political optics, trying to please their political base without ever examining what are effective policies that actually work in terms of dealing with substance use in our society."

Lawyer Frank Addario, head of the Criminal Lawyers' Association of Ontario, said research done by the justice department has shown that mandatory minimum penalties do not deter offenders more than "tailored proportionate sentences."

In fact, he said, "they result in lower conviction rates because judges are reluctant to convict somebody for a minor transgression of the law if they know the penalty is that harsh."