Kevin Ott resides in an Oklahoma prison for possession of three ounces of methamphetamine. After losing his job during the recession, he turned to dealing. Although he’s not violent, he’s currently serving his 14th year in prison. He says he’ll probably be there “until I die.”
In Vermont, Anthony Johnson faces five to 40 years for trafficking. For Johnson, who grew up around drugs, dealers became his role models. His father has only just been released.
Such were typical scenes in Eugene Jarecki’s documentary about the U.S. war on drugs, The House I Live In, which screened in Richmond last Thursday preceding a panel discussion.
Richmondites, along with most Canadians, often take comfort in the fact that these types of situations stop at the border. However, a sweep of recent actions by Harper’s government have moved Canada in a more southerly direction.
In the fall of 2011, the government began the country’s largest prison expansion since the 1930s, according to an article written by Vancouver lawyers David Eby and Avnish Nanda. This expansion resulted in B.C.’s first private prison opening in nearby Surrey.
Last March, Bill C-10: The Safe Streets and Communities Act was passed.
“To help fill those [new prison] beds,” Eby and Nanda write, the bill introduced mandatory minimum sentencing, which means a judge can’t take the individual circumstances into account.
“Criminalization is accelerating,” said one of Thursday’s panelists, Ann Livingston of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. “People are getting arrested for possession of smaller amounts, and most of the jail time served is because they’re failing to show up for one of their many court appearances.”
“These are easy targets for police, where these people can’t afford lawyers.”
Livingston believes it’s these small arrests, usually of non-violent, low-income people, that clog the court system and make for a dangerous society.
“Police are always going for the low-hanging fruit to get their arrest numbers up,” she said. “The majority of their resources are going towards this drug war so that little is being done to solve the real dangerous crimes, that might be more difficult to investigate.”
Richmond RCMP’s Sgt. Cam Kowalski takes issue with the notion that police need to fill specific arrest quotas.
“That is a fallacy which has spread,” he said. “I mean, we should be making arrests, that’s us doing our job, that’s what it means to be in enforcement.”
Last year in Richmond, police made 619 drug-related arrests, and it’s not uncommon for officers to arrest the same individual multiple times for the same drug-related crime.
Regardless, the onus is on that person to mention if he/she has an addiction, which is often difficult to admit.
“It’s not a common practice for us to refer them to addictions services,” said Kowalski. “They have to indicate there’s a problem. It’s only an avenue we go down if we have more information.”
Alcohol and marijuana are the main substances misused in Richmond, according to Rick Dubras, executive director of Richmond Addictions Services.
The organization advocates for a combination of abstinence and harm reduction policies, taking a public health stance toward drug use.
“Scare tactics don’t work,” said Dubras. “Just saying no is absolutely appropriate in certain situations, but in other situations it is not, so we need to be strategic about this.”
Richmond Addictions Services is easily accessible, and looks to engage youth and families in a discussion about drug use and addiction, which is usually a symptom of a larger, systemic issue that straight incarceration ignores.
Dubras sites poverty as one of the main reasons most Richmondites turn to drugs.
Livingston adds drug policy should be viewed through a health lens, rather than a legal one, in part, because it costs taxpayers less to treat drug addicts than to imprison them.
Still, prison expansion and privatization continues in Canada.
With the Surrey Remand Centre locked into a 30-year contract and other private prisons set to be built in B.C. and Ontario, job creation and economic benefits will soon be tied to the prison industry.
But this comes at a cost.
When 9,700 new prison beds were added in September 2011, Public Safety Canada said the cost per offender in prison was an average of $109,699 per prisoner, per year.
This resulted in service costs of more than $1 billion annually for new beds in Canada, not including existing prison bed costs, according to Eby and Nanda’s article.