A prison sentence of up to 14 years for providing cannabis to youth is shaping up as one of the early points of contention as the Liberal government prepares to defend its landmark legislation to legalize recreational marijuana.
Bill C-45, the Cannabis Act, makes clear in its opening passages that the main purpose of the legislation is to prevent young people from accessing cannabis.
Those opening statements are backed up with stiff penalties, including imprisonment for up to 14 years for providing marijuana to someone 17 or under.
Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould defended that provision during an interview with CTV's Question Period, which aired Sunday.
"We want to ensure when we legalize cannabis in this country that we keep it out of the hands of kids and do everything that we can in order to make that happen," said Ms. Wilson-Raybould. "I am not going to apologize for the strict penalties that we've put in place in this legislation."
The penalties for providing marijuana to a minor would be much more severe than those currently in place in relation to alcohol. In Ontario, for instance, the sale of alcohol to a minor carries a maximum sentence of one year.
In the state of Colorado, where legal marijuana stores have been operating since Jan. 1, 2014, selling alcohol to minors is treated as a misdemeanour offence in a similar way to Ontario.
For marijuana, only individuals aged 21 or older are allowed to buy or possess cannabis products in Colorado. As it relates to providing marijuana to minors, the state set four levels of offences based on the quantity of product as well as whether or not the minor is more than two years younger than the adult. The potential sentences range from six months to 32 years.
Craig Jones, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in Canada (NORML Canada), said the penalties in the Canadian bill for providing marijuana to someone 17 or under simply don't make sense.
Mr. Jones said it would be highly unlikely that a judge would impose such a penalty. He also said groups like his would challenge the provision in court as unreasonable.
"For the last 50-odd years, governments have put out this scenario of this trenchcoat-wearing, fedora-clad stranger hovering around the perimeter of schoolyards selling drugs of all kinds to children," he said. "But the truth is that most kids who acquire cannabis get it from their siblings or a friend a couple of lockers down the hallway. I just can't envision a scenario in which a judge thinks that a 14-year sentence is applicable to what is probably, in most cases, a first offender. It just struck me as a kind of ridiculous thing that will get amended in committee review."
The government tabled the 144-page bill on Thursday before the House of Commons rose for a two-week recess. The government also tabled a related bill, C-46, that updates impaired driving laws.
Conservative Senator Vern White, the former chief of police in Ottawa, said he's not concerned by the 14-year maximum sentence. He said that because there is no mandatory minimum sentence, judges will use their discretion.
"I'm fine with it because really it's [for] an extreme case," he said. "I think judges will take into account the age difference, whether or not they were friends, whether the buyer was a frequent buyer. All that kind of stuff is still going to be considered."
Other offences currently in the Criminal Code that carry maximum 14-year sentences include producing child pornography, attempting to leave Canada to commit terrorism and aggravated assault of a peace officer.