Protecting drug users from harmful mandatory minimum sentencing

Tomorrow we will learn if the Supreme Court of Canada will hear the appeal in the case of Joseph Ryan Lloyd.

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Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.

Mr. Lloyd was a Downtown Eastside resident whose addiction to drugs caused him to become involved in drug trafficking. Police stopped Mr. Lloyd for riding his bicycle on the sidewalk and found that he was carrying just less than ten grams of heroin, crack cocaine, and crystal methamphetamine. The drugs were in small packages, so Mr. Lloyd was charged and convicted with possession for the purpose of trafficking. In his sentencing hearing, Mr. Lloyd told the court he was addicted to all three of these drugs.

Under the Safe Streets and Communities Act enacted in 2012, Mr. Lloyd’s conviction carries a one-year mandatory minimum jail term. However, Provincial Court Judge J. Galati found the mandatory minimum sentence could amount to cruel and unusual punishment and declined to impose the mandatory jail term.

The Federal Crown appealed the decision to the BC Court of Appeal last summer, where Pivot Legal Society and the BC Civil Liberties Association intervened. We told the court about the disproportionate effect mandatory minimum sentences have on women, on aboriginal people, and on people, like Mr. Lloyd, who are involved in the drug trade because of their addiction.

The drug trade in Vancouver has a structure that insulates high-level drug dealers from risk of arrest. There are no kingpins walking around the streets with kilos of drugs. Most of the street-level trafficking is done by low-level dealers who are also drug users. They’re given a small amount of drugs to sell and are allowed to keep a small portion of it at the end of the day. They are, in effect, paid for their work as dealers with the drugs upon which they are dependent. Often these low-level dealers end up doing this work because of a debt to a higher-level dealer (sometimes in addition to, or to avoid violent retribution) or as an alternative to sex work.

One-size-fits-all jail sentences prevent sentencing judges from considering the circumstances of these offenders when drug-involved members of our community, like Mr. Lloyd, are convicted. For people who are dealing drugs because of a substance use issue, long, repeated terms of incarceration do little to address the root cause of this kind of crime, and don’t address the offender’s drug use either.

Unfortunately, the Court of Appeal declined to hear our constitutional argument, and increased Mr. Lloyd’s sentence. Mr. Lloyd’s lawyer immediately applied to the Supreme Court of Canada to ask if they would hear the appeal of Mr. Lloyd’s case.

The Court’s decision earlier this month in R v Nur clarified how it will decide if prison sentences violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Now we’re getting ready to apply that law to help people who are facing mandatory minimum sentences for drug charges in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. 

We are hoping tomorrow’s decision makes Mr. Lloyd’s case our first opportunity.