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Shielding a young Canadian from the U.S. war on drugs is the just thing to do

Commissioners Marie Wilson, Justice Murray Sinclair and Chief Wilton Littlechild of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission release their interim report during a news conference in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday February 24, 2012. The


The excessive harshness of the U.S. "war on drugs" is not something to which Canada need blindly submit when asked to extradite suspected traffickers. We don't have to throw away a young life just because we have international obligations.

Those were the stakes in the United States v. Leonard. Zachary Leonard of the Rainy River First Nations was 18 when he agreed to join a trafficker in taking 46,000 ecstasy pills into the U.S. He faced a presumed sentence of 16 to 20 years; it's a drug that has caused great harm. In Canada, he would have received either house arrest or a short stint in jail, the Ontario Court of Appeal said. He had no adult criminal record (though, to be fair to the U.S., he didn't have much time to acquire one). Free on bail in Canada since he had fled the U.S., the now 24-year-old father of two had taken steps to rehabilitate himself. The court considered his alleged role peripheral in the smuggling.

The aboriginal component of the case made it seem more complex, perhaps, than it is. The Leonard case, and a separate case involving another trafficker, raised the question of whether aboriginal offenders should receive special consideration in extradition cases, as they do in sentencing under the Canadian Criminal Code. The court said they should. He was raised by alcoholic parents, was a substance abuser in his early teens and had a forced residential-school past in the family.

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In general, Canadians who commit crimes abroad need to be prepared to face justice abroad. But there are certain principles which Canada defends – for instance, the courts have blocked extradition to the death penalty. The government has an option in drug cases that, given Mr. Leonard's age, tough background and the sentencing disparity, it could have considered – putting him on trial here.

The aboriginal issue is vexing. Aboriginal offenders should not be exempt from extradition. The court says aboriginal offenders should receive "special consideration," not a get-out-of-jail free card. But sometimes it is hard to tell one from the other.

Still, the appeal court's ruling was thoughtful and just. In the court's view, Mr. Leonard had begun rebuilding his life, and the undue harshness of the U.S. drug war should not be permitted to destroy it.

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