Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Mr. Harper's drug stance falls behind

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If the Harper government needs more evidence it is heading in the wrong direction on marijuana laws, it was provided Monday by the U.S. attorney general, who conceded America's drug laws have been a failure and have wrongly punished and injured millions of young people.

Eric Holder told the American Bar Association the Obama administration wants to move away from a policy of handing out harsh sentences for many drug-related crimes. Low-level, non-violent drug offenders, in particular, should no longer be charged with offences that impose mandatory minimum sentences, Holder said.

It's a startling turnaround for a country that declared war on drugs in the 1980s, even though it already had some of the toughest laws in the western world. Federal prisons are overflowing with 220,000 inmates, nearly half for drug offences.

And although some states have liberalized their marijuana laws, most state prisons are also overcrowded, partly because of drug offences.

Holder said major drug dealers with ties to international cartels and gangs should still be prosecuted vigorously, but low-level users should be diverted to treatment programs or community service, rather than treated like hardened criminals.

The attorney general also criticized mandatory minimum sentences, saying they restrict the ability of judges to pass sentences based on the facts. He said the harsh judicial system may have done more harm than good by perpetuating cycles of poverty and desperation, particularly among young black men and other minorities.

By American standards, Holder's comments represent a seismic shift in attitudes, although it remains to be seen if any of the lofty goals will become law in the notoriously fractious American political system.

Canada, on the other hand, is moving in the opposite direction. As part of the Conservative omnibus crime bill, mandatory minimums have been introduced for relatively minor marijuana offences, including at least six months in jail for cultivating six plants. Trafficking offences, which could include relatively minor amounts, would carry a minimum sentence of up to two years in jail.

The Harper government has also stubbornly opposed any form of decriminalization for minor offences, even as the Organization of American States issued a report recommending legalization of pot as a way of battling the social and economic cost of prohibition.

The Conservatives are on the wrong course and the wrong side of history, but it is not too late to change.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 13, 2013 A6

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