Cops and judges in the U.S. are asking Canadian lawmakers to learn from America’s mistakes and scrap harsher pot penalties in a controversial new crime bill.
The Conservatives have championed Bill C-10, dubbed the “Safe Streets and Communities Act,” as a way of ensuring the punishment fits the crime, and they have the support of numerous public opinion polls that show Canadians want tougher sentences for criminals.
But mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana possession in the bill will help, not hinder, organized crime and cross-border trafficking, say the former cops, narcotics investigators, judges and other justice professionals who make up the Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) group.
Under Bill C-10, anyone caught growing six marijuana plants could face six months behind bars.
“You may wonder why, as former police chiefs and other senior drug law enforcement officials, we are writing to you endorsing the call to tax and regulate marijuana,” reads a letter from LEAP to the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee, which is reviewing the bill.
“Our answer is simple. Through our years of service enforcing anti-marijuana laws, we have seen the devastating unintended consequences of these laws. Among the greatest concerns is the growth in organized crime and gang violence.”
That’s because high enforcement raises the street value of illegal drugs, said lawyer Eric Sterling, one of 28 signatories on a letter.
“Anyone that knows anything about economics knows the more profitable an enterprise, the more people are going to do it. When you make drugs more valuable than gold or platinum or anything, more people are going to spend the time to make those profits,” said Sterling, who served as counsel to U.S. Congress when it instituted federal mandatory minimum sentences in 1986.
Sterling said politicians often tout higher penalties as a deterrent to crime, saying it sends a strong message.
“What surprised me many years after our mandatory sentences were enacted was how rarely the offenders actually knew what the penalties are,” said Sterling. “The people you’re sending a message to don’t read parliamentary reports. They rarely read the newspapers.”
What’s more, LEAP says if Canada follows the U.S.’s path with tougher drug penalties, it will clog up the Canadian prison system and taxpayers will be forced to shoulder the burden.
“These polices have bankrupted state budgets as limited tax dollars pay to imprison nonviolent drug offenders at record rates instead of programs that can actually improve community safety,” the letter reads.
The group is calling for the taxation and regulation of marijuana.
“It is clear that we are not going to stop drug use and drug trafficking through law enforcement,” Sterling said. “At some point, you need to look at evidence instead of relying on mythologies.
“I urge policy makers in Canada to learn from our mistakes.”
The feds, however, are unmoved by LEAP’s letter.
“We have no intention to decriminalize or legalize marijuana,” said Julie Di Mambro, spokeswoman for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson.
“Our government remains committed to ensuring criminals are held fully accountable for their actions and that the safety and security of law-abiding Canadians come first in Canada’s judicial system.”