Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promised mandatory prison terms forserious drug crimes as part of a $63.8-million, two-year drug strategy he says will helpaddicts and punish dealers.


Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised new money for drug investigations and prosecutions on Thursday. ((John Woods/Canadian Press))

In a Winnipeg news conference Thursday, Harper lamented that "currently there are no minimum prison sentences for producing and trafficking dangerous drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine."

"But these are serious crimes," he said. "Those who commit them should do serious time, so we'll introduce new legislation this fall proposing mandatory prison sentences for people convicted of serious drug offences."

He did not say what offences wouldfall into that category or how long the sentences would be, but he did not mention marijuana in connection with mandatory sentencing.

Even so, he allowed himself a jab at his Liberal predecessors, who came close to decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. Canadian governments have sent mixed messages about drugs, he complained.

"They've tacked back and forth between prohibition and legalization so many times that Canadians hardly know what the law actually says any more. It's time to be straight with Canadians so Canadians who use drugs can get straight, because narcotics destroy lives."

He promised newmoney for drug investigations and prosecutions, bigger campaignsto identify and close drug labs and marijuana grow ops, tougherborder enforcement to keep drugs out of the country and more RCMP efforts to seizeproceeds of crime.

'If you get involved with drugs, you can receive help to get away from them. However, if you sell drugs or produce drugs, you will go to prison.' —Prime Minister Stephen Harper

"If you get involved with drugs, you can receive help to get away from them," he said. "However, if you sell drugs or produce drugs, you will go to prison."

People involved in the treatment of addictions have raised concerns the money being spent by the government will focus too much on enforcement and leave out harm-reduction measures, such as safe-injection sitesand needle-exchange programs.

Harper said harm reduction is nota"distinct pillar" of the Conservative strategy.

Hisgovernment is watching harm-reduction efforts in Vancouver to see how they work, but he is cool to the idea, he said.

"I remain a skeptic that you can tell people we won't stop the drug trade, we won't get you off drugs, we won't even send messages to discourage drug use, but somehow we will keep you addicted and yet reduce the harm just the same," he said

It is "a second-best strategy at best," he said, "because if you remain a drug addict, I don't care how much harm you reduce, you're going to have a short and miserable life."

Harper and two of his colleagues, Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day and Health Minister Tony Clement, stressed that two-thirds of the money in the strategy would go to programs designed to help addicts quit and raise public awareness of the dangers of drugs.

The rest, $21.6 million, would go to enforcement efforts, Day said.

Liberals and New Democrats were quick to denounce theplan as a U.S.-style war on drugs.

"Stephen Harper’s ideological stance focuses on cracking down on drug possession, production and trafficking, while retreating from harm-reduction measures that help Canadians suffering from addiction," Liberal health critic Bonnie Brown said in a statement.

Liberal MP Keith Martin, a physician, said the strategy "will be terrible for Canada because it will result in increased drug use, increased crime, increased incarceration rates and increased costs to the taxpayer. This is a failed approach that has had catastrophic consequences in the U.S. It would be utterly foolish for us to adopt this approach in Canada."

Libby Davies, the NDP member for Vancouver East,said experience shows that treatment, prevention and harm-reduction programs are key to preventing drug use.

"A heavy-handed, U.S.-style war on drugs only serves to create a culture of fear," she said in a statement. "This so-called drug strategy fails to address the very real needs in our communities."