Drug sentences uneven

Even casual observers of the justice system know that drugs are at the root of the vast majority of court cases.

Even casual observers of the justice system know that drugs are at the root of the vast majority of court cases.

From violence fueled by drugs or inspired by a need to protect drug turf, to thefts driven by the need to feed an addiction, to the growing, manufacturing or importing and pushing of drugs, the parade of criminals and victims is endless.

It is also tragic, devastating and debilitating for many Canadians.

Drugs scar and destroy lives.

Drug-related cases clog our justice system, drive up our policing costs, affect workplace efficiency and put a huge strain on our health-care system.

None of this can be denied.

Why then, in the face of such horrific evidence, does the judiciary continue to treat those involved in the drug trade with such an uneven, often permissive, hand?

Last week, a Red Deer man walked out of court after being convicted of possession of marijuana for the purpose of trafficking, producing marijuana and stealing electricity, following a two-day Red Deer Court of Queen’s Bench trial.

In the November 2007 bust that resulted in his arrest, police found 526 marijuana plants worth $750,000 to $1 million a year, based on a harvest of three crops annually. The grow-op bust was one of eight in Red Deer over a 12-month period between late 2006 and late 2007.

To say grow-ops have become a big, insidious business in Red Deer is an understatement. Grow-ops have been found in neighbourhoods all over town, just as apparent crack and crystal meth houses have cropped up with alarming regularity in as many subdivisions. Drugs are woven into the very fabric of our communities.

But Court of Queen’s Bench Justice June Ross seemed to lack that perspective. The Edmonton judge gave Jay Hein Tang, 42, a conditional sentence of two years less a day for operating a grow-op in Sunnybrook. The first 15 months will be served as house arrest, followed by a nine-months curfew and 100 hours of community work (presumably not with young people).

Five other people have been convicted after the spate of marijuana grow-operation busts. Every one of them landed in jail, for between two years and 28 months; that’s federal penitentiary time. All of them pleaded guilty and all of them were sentenced by Central Alberta judges.

For criminals, what are the lessons in order to get a lighter sentence?

l Plead not guilty, thus wasting more valuable court time by necessitating a trial.

l Ask your lawyer to seek delays or otherwise angle to get you an out-of-town judge.

l Present yourself as a ‘crop sitter,’ as Tang did, inferring that some other higher authority was responsible (regardless of the fact that he owned the home).

For the average citizen, the lessons are more painful: the law is inconsistent in its attempts to take drug dealers out of circulation, and to punish them for infecting the lives of countless Canadians.

We are not an eye-for-an-eye society. If we were, countless convicted drug dealers, growers and manufacturers would be living a life of despair, or they would be dead — much like their victims.

But we do expect fairness from our judiciary, not inexplicable sentences that suggest a leniency out of kilter with the severity of the crime.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

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