Commentary | End unbalanced drug penalties and enforcement

The American Senate Judiciary Committee weakened the mandatory minimum sentencing laws for cocaine last week. Mandatory minimum sentence laws are legislative enactments that force judges to give a minimum penalty for certain crimes. Under the new sentencing guidelines, crack cocaine – most often used by black Americans – will be penalized 20 times more harshly than powder cocaine, used most frequently by white Americans. Previously, penalties for crack were 100 times harsher.

When talking about racist drug and enforcement policies like this, it’s likely that the United States, not Canada, will be the topic of conversation. After all, American mandatory minimum sentencing disproportionately affects black males. In New York, in spite of the fact that white people are smoking the most marijuana, people of colour are seven times likelier to be arrested for possession. In fact, marijuana became criminalized because of people’s fears of Mexican and black people.

But Canada should not be left out of the conversation. Take the example of indigenous youth, many of whom are part of a cycle of substance abuse that was first institutionalized by European colonists, who made a practice of using alcohol to extract better terms of trade from native populations.

The way Canada’s current drug-related legislation is enforced is highly racialized. There have long been cries of racial profiling in connection to drug-related law enforcement. A report released last week by the UN’s independent expert on minority issues, Gay McDougall, condemned Canada – and Montreal in particular – for systemic racial profiling. And the outcry that followed Fredy Villanueva’s death at the hands of the Montreal police has revealed the widespread sentiment among minorities in the area that the police profile people of colour.

The institutional injustice doesn’t end there. The Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Justice System has reported that black people found guilty of drug-related offences would more likely be given a prison term than white offenders – 55 per cent of people of colour went to prison, versus 36 per cent of white people. This is despite the fact that there were “no significant differences” in the circumstances of the cases. And studies have repeatedly shown that harsher prison sentences, which we already know to be racially skewed, have no substantial effect on rates of recidivism.

But this tough-on-crime approach fails to take into account the larger context of the issue; it utilizes short-term methods to try and stem a problem that has deeper roots. Often, the underground economy becomes the best career prospect for people in economically marginalized communities or who are systemically blocked from entering other job markets.

The current enforcement policies are not even effective at achieving their goal: while 28 per cent of Canadians said they had used illegal drugs in 1994, that number had risen to 45 per cent in 2004, all while the government continues to spend the majority of its drug policy budget – 73 per cent – on enforcement, versus 14 per cent spent on treatment and just 2.6 per cent on prevention. The country’s first drug-related mandatory minimum sentencing bill, Bill C-15 – which would have legislated minimum sentences for marijuana growing – was introduced in Parliament last year and only died due to the prorogation. Though the bill has been scuttled, it’s a part of a broader move toward enforcement-based policies pushed by the Conservatives. This is worrying, given the U.S.’s history with mandatory sentencing.

Canadian drug policy must move in the direction of solving larger, systemic inequalities, rather than blindly cracking down on their effects. And since the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse, Quebec’s human rights commission, issued a promise last week to hold hearings on racial profiling later this spring, we urge the province to pay close attention to the discourse that comes out of these hearings, and to act decisively to stem the tide of racial profiling in drug-related crimes in this province.