Canada will lose the war on drugs with mandatory minimum sentencing

June 26 is the United Nations’ International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. Around the world, many countries are using the UN's position to justify the excessive criminalization of drug users. In Canada, it's led to Bill C-10, the Conservatives Government’s Safe Streets and Communities Act, which was enacted in March 2012.

The bill institutes mandatory minimum sentencing for various drug possession charges. Under the Act, possession for the purpose of trafficking now carries a one-year minimum sentence in certain circumstances.

Mandatory minimum sentences are bad public policy for everyone. They are expensive and they don't work.  For drug charges, mandatory jail time cost taxpayers a fortune in policing, court and jail costs. The Safe Streets and Communities Act is a policy that does little to stem the sale and consumption of illicit drugs. It also places our most marginalized citizens at great risk.

Pivot outlined the social costs of mandatory minimums in a report last year called Throwing Away the Keys: The human and social cost of mandatory minimum sentences. In short, mandatory minimum sentences in Canada have a disproportionate effect on women, on aboriginal people, and on people who are involved in the drug trade because of their addiction. Pivot says this disproportionate effect goes so far that it is unconstitutional. 

That's why we're intervening in the case of Joseph Lloyd, a Vancouver Downtown Eastside resident who was convicted of possession for the purpose of trafficking. Mr. Lloyd struggles with drug addiction. Vancouver police stopped him for riding his bicycle on the sidewalk. When they searched him, police found a knife in a sheath and arrested him for breaching the conditions of his probation. They searched him, and found two grams of crack cocaine, six grams of methamphetamine, and a half gram of heroin. He was convicted of possession or the purpose of trafficking, a charge which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of one year in jail. At his sentencing hearing Mr. Lloyd told the court he was addicted to all three of the drugs he was carrying, and that he engaged in trafficking because he was paid in drugs.

When his case was heard in provincial court, the judge ruled that the mandatory minimum sentencing amounted to 'cruel and unusual punishment.' We agree.

A recent hearing at the BC Court of Appeal declined to consider the constitutional argument about mandatory minimum sentences, but Mr. Lloyd, and Pivot, are hoping to be able to make our argument at the Supreme Court of Canada. 

Mandatory minimum sentencing are unconstitutional for women, for aboriginal people and for people, like Mr. Lloyd, who become involved in the drug trade as a result of their addiction. Drug addiction is a medical issue which should be addressed by doctors, not jails.

It's time for Canada to change it's tough-on-crime approach. Pivot  will continue to challenge unjust laws, and to advocate for marginalized members of our society.

By Adrienne Smith, Pivot Health and Drug Policy lawyer