Public Safety Minister Anne McLellan warned judges yesterday to take marijuana laws seriously and said they will be held to account if jail terms are not imposed on those who run grow operations.
"We are putting the onus on the courts -- the judiciary, in a sense -- to take this crime seriously," Ms. McLellan said at a Liberal policy convention in Ottawa. "This is not a victimless crime, and therefore I think the judiciary needs to start to reflect the harsh reality of illegal grow-ops and the consequences for our communities and society in the sentences they hand out."
Legislation before a Commons committee demands that judges who do not impose jail terms for aggravated drug offences must explain their decisions in writing.
"You have to provide written reason to society, to the community in which you live, Mr. or Madam Justice," she said. "You have to give written reasons as to why you did not think jail time was appropriate."
The minister's suggestion that the courts be tougher on criminals was echoed by Colleen Myrol, the mother of Constable Brock Myrol, who was among the four RCMP officers shot dead on Thursday during a raid on a marijuana grow operation near Mayerthorpe, Alta.
In a statement she read in Red Deer, Alta., she urges Prime Minister Paul Martin to "give the power back to the police. Take the power from the Supreme Court and give it back to the House of Commons."
Tony Cannavino, president of the Canadian Professional Police Association, which represents about 54,000 police officers across Canada, expressed similar sentiments.
"Even if you say that the sentences were raised from 10 years to 15 or 20 years, even if we go to life imprisonment, we know that no judges will give those sentences," Mr. Cannavino said. "So what we say is, we need minimum sentencing. That would have a deterrent effect."
Neither Mr. Cannavino nor Ms. McLellan would agree, however, with the suggestion that marijuana be legalized to take its distribution out of criminal hands. The legislation would decriminalize possession of small amounts but stop short of legalization.
Mr. Cannavino said that if pot were legalized, criminals still would run the drug trade because they can produce a better product.
Ms. McLellan said that marijuana is too hazardous to public health to allow on the streets, and focused on the role of the judges. "All of us, including the judiciary, need to understand what is at stake here."
Former justice minister Martin Cauchon, no longer an MP but widely viewed as a candidate to lead the Liberal Party, distanced himself from Ms. McLellan's comments. "Personally, I wouldn't criticize judges and the justice system."
The government's bill to decriminalize marijuana, which he introduced before the election, contains the tougher penalties judges need, Mr. Cauchon said.
Most opposition politicians were reluctant yesterday to wade into policy issues on what clearly was a day of mourning. But some were critical of the Liberal plan to decriminalize marijuana while clamping down on drug producers.
"They are going to increase demand, but they are going to choke off supply," said Bradley Trost, the Conservative MP for Saskatoon-Humboldt. "It's going to make the suppliers even more dangerous, even more willing to take risks, because the profit margins will be even higher."
With two separate motions on marijuana scheduled for a debate and vote today at the Liberal policy convention, the party's position was a hot topic among delegates inside the Ottawa Congress Centre.
Brian Thiessen, the president of the Liberals' Alberta wing, which is sponsoring a motion to legalize marijuana, said there is talk of withdrawing or amending the motions because of the shootings.
"To the extent that we can modify it, be sensitive to the issues that are out there right now, I think all options are being considered."