Drug offence bill is under fire

Interior Health’s Kelowna medical health officer is one of more than 550 health professionals from across Canada who are publicly opposing the federal government’s latest attempt to introduce mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offences.

Interior Health’s Kelowna medical health officer is one of more than 550 health professionals from across Canada who are publicly opposing the federal government’s latest attempt to introduce mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offences.

Dr. Paul Hasselback has joined physicians, researchers and scientists from across the country in opposing Bill S-10, which was introduced by the minority Conservative government in Ottawa Monday.

The opposition, led by  the Urban Health Research Initiative, a program of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, argues there is “significant” evidence to show that the Tories tough on crime approach will not meaningfully reduce violence or drug use or improve public health and safety. Instead, say the health professionals, it will only serve to waste taxpayers’ dollars.

The bill, titled the Penalties for Organized Crime Act, proposes a range of amendments to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and other acts, including introducing mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offenses.

The health professionals are urging the federal government to abandon what they call ineffective and expensive approaches, such as Bill S-10, and instead embrace evidence-based policies to curb the harms of illicit drug use.

“Health, research and academic leaders oppose proposed law’s mandatory minimum prison terms, which do not reduce violence or drug use or improve public health and safety,” said the professionals in their letter.

According to Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and one of the signatories of the letter, mandatory minimum sentences neither prevent organized crime nor deter the use of illicit drugs

“The Canadian government is proposing a policy direction that has cost jurisdictions in the United States billions of dollars without achieving the desired benefits of lower crime and better public health.”

The letter says mandatory minimum sentence legislation is being repealed in New York, Michigan, Massachusetts, and Connecticut due to high costs to taxpayers and the disproportionate harms caused to ethnic minority communities.

“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,” stated Neil Boyd, professor and associate director of the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University who also signed the letter.

“We will be spending tens of millions of dollars to imprison individuals who represent little if any real threat to the public.”

The letter goes on to say Bill S-10 comes at a time of growing consensus that drug policy approaches that prioritize public health are more effective at curbing drug use and drug-related harms than costly enforcement schemes, such as those proposed in Bill S-10. Data from Portugal, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and other settings suggest that public health-oriented illicit drug policies have resulted in positive and sustained reductions in a variety of harms from drug use, such as HIV infection, and have not resulted in increases in illicit drug use.

“Public health experts and academics recognize that ‘get tough’ policies such as mandatory minimum sentences do not achieve their intended goals and come with financial, social, and public health costs that Canadians are not prepared to accept,” said Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.

“It is time to abandon ineffective ‘get tough’ polices in favour of scientific, evidence-based policies. Let’s trade ‘get tough’ for ‘get smart’ policies.”

Bill S-10 will be before the House of Commons alongside the new federal budget.

awaters@kelownacapnews.com