On June 17, 2006, seven former US drug czars met in Washington D.C. to mark the thirty-first anniversary of the war on drugs and to proclaim a unanimous conclusion: the United States had won the war against illegal drugs. By most measures, however, the current state of the US criminal justice system would suggest a different conclusion. Currently 489,000 Americans sit behind bars for drug offenses, while a recent poll shows 12.8 million citizens use illegal drugs on a regular basis. The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, imprisoning 730 of every 100,000 adults. Further, more than half of all federal inmates are incarcerated for drug crimes.
Just across the border, in stark contrast to the United States, Canada’s prison population has remained stable for the past four decades. With only 116 of every 100,000 individuals imprisoned, Canada’s smaller prison population has cost taxpayers less than the United States’ prison system—money which can potentially be spent on treatment options for drug addicts. Yet despite this relatively low and stable incarceration rate, Canadian officials elected in May 2011 decided to overhaul their drug sentencing system. A newly proposed bill, entitled the Safe Streets and Communities Act, will largely emulate the US sentencing framework, despite its highly documented failure to achieve even modest success in the US war on drugs.
The United States and Canada are at a crossroads. Many critics argue that the United States’ punitive treatment of drug offenders has been misplaced, yet the Canadian Legislature is intent on introducing legislation that copies this failed approach. Part I of this Note summarizes the differing approaches within the United States and Canada to sentencing drug crimes and the disparate incarceration rates that result. Part II examines the American and Canadian federal sentencing schemes, including a discussion of the US Federal Sentencing Guidelines (“US Guidelines”) and proposed Canadian legislation. Part III argues that both the United States and Canada should modify their approach to dealing with drug crime sentencing by reducing reliance on incarceration in favor of a more rehabilitative model involving the expanded use of drug courts.