Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Drug Offences

Why Everyone Loses
Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network
April 2006

minimum-sentencesThe use of illegal drugs is often associated with a wide range of health, social and community problems, substantial drug-related crime, and stigma and marginalization of people who use drugs. In response, policy-makers have relied heavily on law enforcement, despite evidence that certain law enforcement practices actually worsen the impact of drug use on individuals and communities, and sometimes lead to human rights violations.

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Scientific evidence indicates that mandatory minimum sentences only worsen the health-related harms associated with incarceration by increasing the transmission of infectious disease in prisons. Massive public costs stemming from policing, prosecution and incarceration, and subsequent treatment of HIV infections and other harms related to drug use initiated in prisons, make mandatory sentencing an extremely expensive investment with little return and great potential to be counterproductive. The science in this area is compelling: Alternatives to enforcement and imprisonment have been shown to be many times more effective in terms of improving health and reducing the fiscal costs associated with illegal drug use. The human rights evidence from other jurisdictions is equally strong.

There are no reliable studies that indicate mandatory sentences are compatible with civil rights protections, although they do seem to penalize small-scale drug dealers who are often themselves people who use drugs, discriminate against the most vulnerable and favour the biggest drug dealers who have important information to trade for lower sentences.