The Harper Conservatives are under fire for their extraordinarily expensive legislative initiative, Bill S-10. Among other things, it seeks to spend at least hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers dollars on prison building, in order to impose a mandatory minimum term of six months in jail for anyone who grows more than six marijuana plants. Most Canadians, experts and non-experts alike, have criticized the proposal as costly and counter-productive, noting that it will imprison individuals who are mostly non-violent and who sell to willing adult consumers.
It’s not that marijuana is benign. For some people and in some circumstances it can be a problematic drug, as can most other psychoactive substances that are widely circulated in our culture – tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, maybe even chocolate. What’s initially much more puzzling is the extent to which the Harper Conservatives are ignoring all relevant evidence regarding the utility of mandatory minimum terms for drug offences. We know that mandatory minimums are the leading cause of the massive explosion in U.S. prison populations, imposing extraordinary costs without any demonstrable benefits – the percentages of Americans who use cannabis and other illegal drugs has not been impacted by this massive project of imprisonment, and today most American legislators of both the political left (Barack Obama) and the right (Newt Gingrich) are now trying to figure out how to make the criminal justice system less reliant on imprisonment, and more effective. Perhaps even more oddly, the percentage of both Canadians and Americans who used cannabis in the last year sits at 10 per cent, about 50 per cent higher per capita than the percentage of Dutch citizens who used cannabis – a country in which the drug can be bought without prosecution, at any number of so-called coffee shops.