On Thursday, prison reformers launched an attack on the federal government’s plan to implement minimum penalties for “serious drug offences” and increase the maximum penalty for cannabis production.

Bill S-10, an Act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) was introduced in the Senate last May. A similar bill, Bill C-15 died in December 2009 when parliament was prorogued which is almost identical to Bill C-26, which died in December 2008 when parliament was dissolved.

The Prison Moratorium Action Coalition, organizers of Thursday’s rally, formed in resistance to the new legislation and expansion of prisons in Canada. They believe that tax payer money be spent on much needed social justice initiatives like housing, child poverty and settling Indigenous land-claims rather than putting forward a “tough on crime agenda.”

Sandra Chu, Senior Policy Analyst with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network predicts that based upon what happened in the United States, Bill S-10 will be “a complete disaster” because it throws drug users into prisons where there are no harm reduction measures in place.

In prison, where sufficient needle and syringe programs for addicts or tattooists don’t exist, HIV is 15 times higher than in the community at large and almost four in ten people are infected with hepatitis C.

“But the government refuses to implement these (harm reduction measures) because they see it as encouraging drug use behind bars,” said Chu, “and we know that it’s not true.”

The Conservative plan to introduce minimum penalties will also add significantly to the expenses of the criminal justice system where it already costs over $100,000 per year to house an inmate in a federal institution. Medium and minimum security inmates cost more than $70,000 a year.

If Bill S-10 became law it would surely trigger a surge in new prison construction costing taxpayers billions of dollars, since our federal and provincial prisons are already filled to capacity.

“Investing money into building prisons is not investing in our communities,” said Zoe Dodd, a member of the Prison Moratorium Action Coalition. “Nine billion dollars could go to invest in our communities for education and social programs.”

Kai’enne Tymerik, with the Toronto Raver Information Project, an organization that provides services to the dance community and beyond, said she sees “young people with mental health issues struggling to self medicate when they are too young and isolated to know what services there are available.”

So they use drugs to connect with others in the same situation.

“Between the Valium, Ativan, Prozac, Viagra, alcohol, tobacco and coffee, we are all drug users,” she said. In 1916, Ontario passed a law to prohibit the sale of alcohol because “alcohol was popularly criticized as being the cause of all the major ills of society.”

But the cost of keeping the drug illegal far outweighed the benefits and in 1927 prohibition was repealed.

Over the last 10 years, prison reformers say, the number of women incarcerated has jumped 50 per cent. “That will only get worse under the Conservatives,” said Dodd. “And these women are mostly poor, homeless and struggling with issues of substance abuse.”

In the Netherlands, nine prisons were closed after they decriminalized drugs. “These are the strategies that we should be looking for in our communities,” she said. “Instead, our prisons have become a warehouse for people living with mental health issues and substance abuse problems.”

Prisons are not a place, Dodd reminded the crowd, where people should be housed. But Canada doesn’t have a national housing strategy so prisons have become a convenient substitute for affordable housing and a perpetual source of income for all those involved directly or indirectly in the prison system.

Even though Bill S-10 will allow courts not to impose mandatory sentences if offenders complete a Drug Treatment Court (DTC) program, Dodd said, it’s just “another way to cast the net wider and keep you engaged in their system longer.”

Shawn Gibb, a member of the Toronto Drug Users Union and a prisoner, has been in the DTC program for seven and a half months. Standing on the steps of Old City Hall in Toronto before a crowd of 70 supporters, Gibb admitted he’s been struggling trying to stay away from drugs because he enjoys smoking marijuana.

Three days a week, he attends drug treatment sessions and if he misses a session he’ll be sanctioned with community service hours or forced to serve a weekend in prison. Although Gibb entered the program to “better himself,” he now feels he may have been better off just serving his time.

The expectations are high, he said, and it’s humiliating to have to do urine screens while someone is hovering over you.

Gibb gets by for now on welfare because he’s not allowed to work while he’s in the DTC program. He’s even had to turn down job offers.

“It’s depressing,” said Gibb, who grew up on welfare with his two siblings. “I need help with my housing. I need help financially. Even finding a doctor is almost impossible.”

Look at a drug user’s life, said Gibb, and try to imagine what it’s like.

And then try to imagine how close Canada was to decriminalizing marijuana back in the 70s. But when the United States began its futile war on drugs under the Reagan administration, Canada was forced to play along.

Besides minimum penalties for “serious drug offences,” Bill S-10 also introduces mandatory minimum punishments for the production of cannabis depending upon the number of marijuana plants produced.

The proposed changes are due, in part, to the Canadian perception that sentencing for drug crimes “is treated as a minor cost of doing business.” In a 2007 National Justice Survey, two thirds of those surveyed said that “they support the strengthening of sentencing laws and tougher penalties for serious drug offenders. Approximately one quarter of Canadians endorse minimum mandatory sentences even for relatively minor crimes.”

It’s no surprise that mandatory minimum sentences also have the support of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.

Opponents of the bill say that the measures could turn Canadian prisons into “U.S.-style inmate warehouses” with no allowance for mitigating circumstances and the increased costs to run prisons will pull much needed funds away from social programs that are designed to keep people out of prison in the first place.

An alternative approach promoted by Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), who believe that existing drug policies have failed curb drug abuse, crime and addiction, is to move towards a system of regulation rather than prohibition.

“A lot of marijuana users end up in the prison system for small amounts of pot,” said Dodd, “and I don’t think ingesting a substance should throw anyone behind bars.”

(Even former prime minister Paul Martin admitted that he and his wife Sheila tried hash brownies in Montreal during the 60s.)

Davin Christensen, a member of Toronto Hash Mob 420, a loose collection of marijuana enthusiasts who protest pot prohibition, said the proposed bill will put a lot his friends in prison for participating in “a safe activity, less harmful than alcohol or even caffeine.”

In the past three years, Christensen has been through the system three times for various cannabis related crimes. Under the new laws, he’d still be serving a prison sentence.

“Even the pot bakers, those cute girls in the kitchen that are doing the baking for us, are now going to be receiving mandatory minimums,” said Christensen.

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.