World leaders urge Canada to avoid mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson; former Presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Switzerland; and former Federal Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour call Bill C-10 a ‘grave mistake’

[Vancouver, BC] — World business, legal and political leaders with the influential Global Commission on Drug Policy are calling on Canada to reject the statute for mandatory minimum sentences for minor marijuana offenses proposed in Bill C-10, which is now before the Canadian Senate.

In addition, they are recommending Canadians evaluate possibilities around taxing and regulating marijuana as an alternative strategy to undermine organized crime and improve community health and safety.

In an open letter addressed to Canadian Senators, leaders such as Virgin Group founder Richard Branson and former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso assert that the illegality of marijuana, coupled with huge demand for the drug in the U.S., has led to increased organized crime and violence in Canada and Mexico.

Commission members strongly argue that polices that adhere to the failed war on drugs – such as the mandatory minimum sentencing provisions included in the federal government‘s Bill C-10 – will not
address the issues of gang violence and organized crime. Instead, they favour a public health approach to cannabis policy, including considering a regime of regulation and taxation.

“Tougher drug law enforcement tactics such as mandatory minimum sentencing for minor drug law offences will put a huge strain on Canadian taxpayers,‖ the letter states. “[They] will not have the intended effect of creating safer communities, and will instead further entrench the marijuana industry in the hands of organized crime groups.”

“With the proposed implementation of mandatory prison sentences for minor cannabis-related offences under Bill C-10, Canada is at the threshold of continuing to repeat the same grave mistakes as other countries.”

The Commission, which includes leaders from countries such as Mexico and Colombia that are hard hit by the war on drugs, called on Canadian lawmakers to adopt an evidence-based approach to controlling cannabis. Commission members referred to the overwhelming evidence that stricter law enforcement policies for minor drug law offenses are destructive, expensive, and ineffective.

“Adopting the mandatory sentencing for minor cannabis offenses would send Canada down a tragic path, likely costing your taxpayers billions and doing nothing to tackle drug violence or drug dependency. Canada should explore policies that treat drugs as a health issue, not a criminal issue, and help lead the way to end the failed war on drugs,” said Mr. Branson.

The Commission further argues that Canada‘s national law enforcement policies will have an international impact, with the unintended consequences of  “a tough on crime”  approach reaching other countries. U.S. law enforcement, for instance, has already described how organized crime groups from British Columbia are active in Washington State.

“The U.S. war on drugs has only deepened the drug problem, with drug prohibition causing violence in countries across the Americas, including Canada,‖ said Mr. Cardoso, who is also Commission Chair.

“Fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed. We should start by treating cannabis use as a health issue and undermine organized crime by legally regulating the drug‘s use rather than promoting prohibition policies which actually fuel gang violence.”

Stricter sentencing fails to reduce crime

The Commission argues that increasing anti-cannabis law enforcement policies like those proposed in Bill C-10 fails to address root causes of organized crime and gang violence, which are natural consequences of drug prohibition. In Canada, such crime and violence are primarily driven by marijuana prohibition.

“The war on drugs, as it has been fought for decades, cannot be won,‖ said Louise Arbour, former Canadian Supreme Court Justice and current head of the International Crisis Group, which is committed to preventing and resolving conflict. “In countries of production, transit and consumption, it has done much more harm than good. We must implement policies that place community health and safety at the forefront of our efforts, and consider drug use a public health issue rather than a criminal justice issue.”

In their letter, the Commission endorses Stop the Violence BC (STVBC), a coalition of academic, legal, law enforcement and health experts, and its campaign to reform cannabis laws to reduce the harms associated with the illegal cannabis trade, including gang violence. The Commission joins a growing list of recent endorsements including four former mayors of Vancouver, the Health Officers Council of B.C., four former B.C. attorneys general, and a group of high-profile current and former law enforcement officials.

“The Global Commission supports Stop the Violence BC‘s suggested approach of regulating marijuana under a public health framework,” said Ilona Szabo, spokesperson for the Secretariat of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. “Mandatory minimum sentences and further reinforcement of prohibition are not rational or prudent solutions.”