Minimum sentences in the federal government's new "tough on crime" legislation are going to overwhelm B.C.'s overcrowded jails with small-scale marijuana growers, according to the province's prison guards.

If passed, the federal government's new law will mean a six-month minimum sentence for anyone convicted of growing between six and 200 cannabis plants.

Growing more than 200 to 500 plants would draw a year in jail and more than 500 plants would draw a minimum two years in jail. The maximum sentences in all cases would rise from seven to 14 years in prison.

Dean Purdy, the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union spokesperson for the province's prison guards, says B.C. jails are already 150 to 200 per cent over capacity, forcing some inmates to be bunked in tents.

New trafficking sentences

Under the legislation, there will be a one-year minimum sentence for all marijuana and cannabis trafficking offences.

The minimum sentence will rise to two years if the offence includes any of the following aggravating factors:

  • For the benefit of organized crime.
  • Involving use or threat of violence.
  • Involving use or threat of use of weapons.
  • By someone who was previously convicted of a designated drug offence or had served a term of imprisonment for a designated substance offence in the previous 10 years.
  • Through the abuse of authority or position or by abusing access to a restricted area to commit the offence of importation/exportation and possession to export.

Purdy says any new crackdown on bud growers will make a bad situation far worse for the provincial government, which will be responsible for the cost of housing any additional inmates sentenced to less than two years.

"The provinces are on their own hook for increased costs. So overcrowding is going to be a continued problem based on the Harper government's tough on crime legislation," said Purdy.

Last year, the B.C. government promised that it would build a new 360-bed jail in the Okanagan within the next four years, but it has not yet decided which municipality will get it. The federal government also promised to add a total of 362 new bunks to five federal prisons in B.C.

Tough on crime bill tabled

The federal government's new crime bill, which is formally known as the Safe Streets and Communities Act, is actually made up of nine smaller bills that were introduced by the Conservative government during its minority rule, but were never passed.

The Conservatives' election platform promised to pass the bill within 100 sitting days of Parliament, beginning on June 6, saying the new laws will target those involved in organized crime.

But B.C. criminal lawyer Don Skogstad says he expects larger criminal organizations and gangs are unlikely to be deterred by minimum prison terms.

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"According to the government, it will provide deterrence. It will deter anyone but enterprise criminals," said Skogstad.

Skogstad said the legislation is likely to result in small scale growers getting busted, and there is no room in B.C.'s jails for all the backroom growers in B.C.

"We are going backwards. It used to be anything like that we are looking at a fine," said Skogstad.