Canada Strikes Down Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Law for Drug Traffickers

The law amounts to "cruel and usual punishment."

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Apr 15 2016, 4:35pm

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Read: A Prosecutor's Regret: How I Sentenced Someone to Life in Prison for Selling Drugs

The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that mandatory minimum sentences for repeat drug traffickers are unconstitutional.

The decision, one of two released Friday morning, overturns a policy brought in under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper that forced judges to hand down a minimum of one year in jail to people who are convicted of more than one trafficking offense within a ten-year period.

A separate ruling also struck down a law that infringed on a judge's ability to give credit for time served prior to a conviction.

Civil liberties advocates argued the laws amount to "cruel and unusual punishment"—a Charter violation—that disproportionately affects drug addicts and marginalized people. They said that the laws also effectively tie a judge's hands when it comes to using discretion during sentencing.

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin's decision makes note of the mandatory minimum law's broad reach, pointing out that it could lead to jail time for someone who was simply passing around a joint.

"At one end of the range of conduct caught by the mandatory minimum sentence provision stands a professional drug dealer who engages in the business of dangerous drugs for profit, who is in possession of a large amount of drugs, and who has been convicted many times for similar offenses," she wrote. "At the other end of the range stands the addict who is charged for sharing a small amount of drugs with a friend or spouse, and finds herself sentenced to a year in prison because of a single conviction for sharing marijuana in a social occasion nine years before. Most Canadians would be shocked to find that such a person could be sent to prison for one year."

The case wound up in Supreme Court when Vancouver man Joseph Lloyd was sentenced to a year in prison after being convicted of possession for the purpose of trafficking. He'd been caught in 2013 holding a few grams of heroin, crack cocaine, and crystal methamphetamine, and had a prior conviction. Lloyd's lawyer argued his client was addicted to those drugs and was in engaging in low-level dealing to support his habit.

M-J Milloy, a research scientist with the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, told VICE the decision is repairing "a mistake made by the last federal government."

"Incarceration has few if any beneficial impacts for people who are addicted to drugs. It does not encourage or help or facilitate people ending their addictions and entering into recovery."

When the Harper government brought in the "tough on crime" law under 2012's Safe Streets and Communities Act, it was pitched as a way to nail major drug traffickers, but Milloy said the reality is it's just been another way to target addicts.

"With this and hopefully pending legalization of cannabis, we'll be moving away from the idea that we can arrest and imprison our way out of drug addiction."

The BC Civil Liberties Association, which acted as an intervener in both cases, said in a statement that mandatory minimum sentences are ineffective, costly, and unjust.

"They serve to perpetuate systemic discrimination in our justice system and are inconsistent with the goals of reconciliation set out in the Truth and Reconciliation Report," said BCCLA lawyer Laura Track.

However the organization noted that dozens of mandatory minimum laws remain on the books in Canada.

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