By Vikki Hopes and Neil Corbett
Pot growers will get six months in jail if they have a grow-op with six or more plants, if the federal Conservatives can pass a tough-on-crime bill, says Abbotsford MP Ed Fast.
Since taking office, Stephen Harper’s government has been trying to establish a minimum jail sentence for growers, Fast said.
“This is a very important bill for us,” he said. “Just look at Abbotsford – the number one threat is drug-related and gang-related crime.”
Fast is chairman of the Justice Committee which reviews all criminal justice legislation. He said the government brought forward similar legislation in an earlier bill called C-15. It passed Parliament, but it was “gutted” by the Senate, which was then dominated by the Liberal party. He said the Senate wanted to have minimum jail time for grows of 200 plants. That was not acceptable to the Conservatives.
Now Conservatives control the Senate and S-10 has its approval, but the Liberals vow they will not let the bill pass Parliament.
“Once it hits the House of Commons, it’s going to be explosive,” predicts Fast. “It clearly shows the line between us and the other parties.”
Liberals have criticized the bill for the six-plant limit, which they say is too low.
“I believe it’s a fair threshold,” said Fast. “We have to draw the line somewhere.”
He said a grow-op with six plants, getting three to four crops per year, would produce 5,000 to 7,000 marijuana cigarettes (joints) per year, which is far beyond personal use.
“Anybody who smokes that many is going to be sick or dead.”
He also defended the length of the jail term, noting parole generally cuts it by two-thirds.
“Keep in mind, if you get six months, you’ll be out on the street in two months,” said Fast.
A guilty party convicted of a first offence for a non-violent crime can also apply for release after one-sixth of his or her sentence is served. So, six months could become one month.
“This is not draconian legislation,” said Fast.
“We’re talking about adults, growing six or more plants, and knowing what it’s for,” he said. “We’re not going after recreational drug users.”
Fast agrees with critics who say more jails will be needed as a result of minimum sentencing.
“But the reality is, Canadians are asking us to do this,” he said. “If the Liberals vote this down, it’s going to make drug dealers very, very happy.”
Abbotsford Police Chief Bob Rich said the amendments to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, if passed, will benefit local crime-fighting. He is the sponsor of a resolution by the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police to support Bill S-10. He also supports the bill for its stiffer penalties for trafficking drugs near playgrounds and recreation centres.
“I’m not suggesting this is perfect legislation, but I do think it goes a long way in the right direction,” Rich said.
He said current laws are not severe enough to keep neighbourhoods safe by deterring organized crime grow-ops.
“The cash cow that has made gangs so prolific in the Fraser Valley is growing marijuana.”
Rich said the money generated from such operations is used to fund other gang endeavours, such as moving cocaine across the border. Additionally, properties can become the scene of violent “grow rips” where weapons are involved and conversely, where weapons are used to protect them.
He said a mandatory six-month minimum sentence is a good start.
“We struggle every day to keep our kids and our communities safe from the devastation and violence of gangs and drugs. Any tools that serve that end goal will be put to good use.”
UFV criminology professor Darryl Plecas spoke to the Senate about the bill, as he has studied grow-ops for over 14 years. He supports the idea of minimum sentences to get past legal precedents that judges follow in sentencing.
He would rather see the threshold be five grow lights in a grow-op, rather than six plants. Five lights establishes that it is a “commercially viable operation.” Generally, a grower with five lights would have 75 plants, he said.
But he would increase the jail term to a minimum of two years, ensuring that offenders do federal time, where he says there are excellent reformative programs.
Plecas noted most growers have an established criminal profile, and are tied to organized crime. The average person involved in a grow-op has a 13-year criminal history with seven prior arrests.
According to his research, in 35 per cent of cases where police bust a grow-op, they simply seize the plants and do not recommend charges.
If charges are recommended by police to Crown counsel, 42 per cent of the time they are either not approved or are stayed by the court. If growers are convicted in court, a jail sentence is imposed in only 20 per cent of the cases, and a three-month sentence is the norm.
David Eby of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association said mandatory minimum sentences have not served the U.S. justice system well, causing expensive expansion of the prison population.
“It’s taking away the discretion of judges to review the circumstances of the person in front of them,” he said.
“One size does not fit all in terms of criminal offences.”
Eby said the association advocates treating addiction to hard drugs as a health issue, and favours decriminalizing marijuana.
“We need to take marijuana out of the hands of organized crime, and tax it and control it,” he said.
He called the new bill “the opposite direction to the way Canada has been going.”
– is an act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) and was introduced in the Senate on May 5, 2010.
– calls for a minimum six-month sentence for producing anywhere from six to 200 marijuana plants, one year for 201 to 500 plants, and two years for more than 500.
– calls for a mandatory minimum one-year jail sentence for trafficking drugs such as heroin, cocaine and meth if certain aggravating factors apply – for example, if the offence was committed for a criminal organization or if violence or the threat of violence was used.
– calls for a mandatory minimum two-year sentence if the trafficking was committed in or near a school, on or near school grounds, or in or near any public place frequented by people under 18.
– calls for a minimum two-year sentence for producing a drug such as heroin, cocaine or meth, and three years if health and safety factors apply, including producing the drug in a location occupied by a child under the age of 18.
– allows for sentencing to be delayed to enable offenders, in certain cases, to participate in a drug treatment program. If the treatment is successfully completed, the court can impose a suspended or reduced sentence.
POT BY THE NUMBERS:
– There are at least 10,000 grow-ops across B.C. In recent years there is less concentration in the Lower Mainland, and more in the Interior.
– In B.C., 16.8 per cent of the population, or 585,000 people, use marijuana.
– Based on the above figures it is estimated that 70 per cent of the pot grown in B.C. is exported out of province.
– The trend is toward grow-ops that are increasingly large, sophisticated and designed to escape detection.
– The average grow-op in B.C through the 1990s was 196 plants.
– The average grow-op in Mission (an area of study) is currently 700 plants.
– The average grow-op in the Cariboo is currently 1,000 plants.
– When police become aware of a grow-op, they don’t respond to it more than 50 per cent of the time, due to a lack of resources.
– When police become aware of a grow-op, 55 per cent of the time it is as a result of tips, and most of the other times it is while investigating other crimes.
– When police do respond to information about grow-ops, 92 per cent of the time they find one.
Source: UFV Criminology Department