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Police with man in handcuffs. (Steven Robertson @ Orem)
Police with man in handcuffs. (Steven Robertson @ Orem)

Health researchers slam Tory mandatory-minimum-sentence proposal for drug crimes Add to ...

More than 500 health professionals from across Canada have written to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and opposition leaders to protest a government bill that would impose mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes including growing small amounts of marijuana.

The physicians, scientists and researchers, led by the Urban Health Research Initiative, a program of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, and the Canadian Public Health Association argue that the measures included in Bill S-10 are both ineffective and expensive.

"We, the undersigned, are concerned that the federal government is pursuing significant amendments to federal drug legislation, through Bill S-10, which are not scientifically grounded and which research demonstrates may actually contribute to health and social harms in our communities," the health professionals say in the letter.

They say there is no evidence that mandatory minimum sentences will reduce drug use or deter crime, that the sentences would have a disproportionately negative impact on young people and members of Canada's aboriginal communities, and that they would have a negative impact on public health and HIV rates.

"Although the government has not produced detailed budget estimates regarding the potential cost of implementing mandatory minimum sentences, similar sentencing regimes introduced in the United States have cost taxpayers billions of dollars," the letter says. "During these difficult economic times, this raises the question of why the federal government proposes to spend scarce financial resources on policies that have been shown to be expensive, ineffective and harmful."

A spokeswoman for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said the bill is aimed at curbing the production and trafficking of illicit drugs which is the most significant source of money for gangs and organized crime.

"Our Government introduced Bill S-10 which will set mandatory jail time for serious drug crimes, specifically targeting drug-traffickers connected to organized crime who use violence or weapons, dealers who sell to youth or frequent places where youth gather, and drug producers who pose a hazard to the health and safety or security of residential neighbourhoods," said Pamela Stephens.

The legislation does not target individuals that have become addicted and contains an exception that will allow the courts not to impose the mandatory sentence if an offender successfully completes a drug treatment program, she said. "Furthermore, simple possession offences will not be subject to these mandatory penalties."

The letter comes weeks after the Church Council on Justice and Corrections, a 39-year-old coalition for justice reform that represents 11 of the largest Christian denominations, wrote a strongly worded letter to Mr. Harper condemning legislation that is expected to increase the number of convicts dramatically and require billions of dollars worth of prison construction.

The health professionals say they want drug legislation that is based on sound scientific evidence.

"Bill S-10 will put small scale growers of marijuana in jail for a minimum of six months, even though the RCMP's study of some 25,000 cultivation files reveals that violence or the threat of violence among cultivators is rare," said Neil Boyd, professor and associate director of the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University. "We will be spending tens of millions of dollars to imprison individuals who represent little if any real threat to the public."

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