Is Canada Going To Pot?
Source: Standard, The (St. Catharines, CN ON)
Author: Grant LaFleche, The Standard
Published: December 22, 2002
Copyright: 2002 St. Catharines Standard
Contact: [email protected]
Critics charge this is exactly what will happen if we decriminalize marijuana, with dire implications for health, crime and our relationship with the U.S.
All it could take is a single vote in the House of Commons and the delicate balance between American security interests and Canadian commercial needs being forged along Niagara's borders with the U.S. could literally go up in smoke, according to the MP from St. Catharines.
That may sound rather melodramatic given the long history of Canadian-American co-operation, but it is a possibility that weighs heavily on the mind of Walt Lastewka when he considers a recent committee report recommending the use of small amounts of marijuana be decriminalized.
The United States government reacted with some rancour over the recommendation, coolly warning of massive delays in Canadian traffic heading south.
"How would you like to see the borders closed?" Lastewka said during an interview from his Scott Street office in St. Catharines. "Because that is a possibility if we go ahead with decriminalization. I'm not joking."
The St. Catharines Liberal MP is not the only one casting a wary eye toward Ottawa, wondering if the nation's capital hasn't got a serious case of the munchies.
"The manufacture and distribution of marijuana is largely in the hands of organized crime," said Niagara Regional Police Chief Gary Nicholls.
"If the illicit use of the drug increases, then that only serves to deepen the pockets, to increase the resources of organized crime."
The Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police said the notion of decriminalizing marijuana is a bad idea and will hamper efforts to combat organized crime and complicate impaired driving, health and youth crime issues, Nicholls said.
Added Lastewka: "There are just too many unknowns. And until I can get more answers than I have questions, then I am dead-flat against this."
Despite objections such as Lastewka's, Justice Minister Martin Cauchon said last week the government will be able to move quickly toward decriminalization and a bill may appear before the House next year.
The prime minster, however, backed away from his justice minister's comments Wednesday. A decision would be made "one day," said Jean Chretien.
Those who have lobbied for years to have pot use removed from the Criminal Code say it's an idea whose time has come.
"This is absolutely the right thing to do," said Keith Martin, a medical doctor and Canadian Alliance MP from Esquimalt-Juan De Fuca in British Columbia. He brought the issue before the Commons three times in the form of private member's bills in the last 16 years. Each time the bill was defeated.
"The war on drugs is a failure and prohibition of marijuana simply doesn't work," he said. "Is it really fair that some 18-year-old gets caught with a small amount of pot and gets a criminal record?
Unlike Niagara's four MPs, all of whom express "grave concerns" about decriminalization, Martin said it would reduce overall consumption of the drug and ultimately hit organized crime where it counts -- in the pocket book.
Stan Sambey, a member of the Federal Marijuana Party of Canada who ran for a federal seat in the Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke riding, said being able to grow your pot would keep many users from giving their money to organized crime.
"It is really a matter of convenience,"
he said. "If you can grow a plant in your house, then in a few months you have your bag of shwag and whoop-de-do. What's the big deal?"
Last week's committee report, regarding the non-medical use of pot, suggested the possession of 30 grams or less no longer be a crime.
That wouldn't mean pot is legal in any amount, but would spare the occasional user the burden of a criminal record. If found with 30 grams of pot -- which could produce around 30 joints -- a person would face a fine, much like getting a parking ticket.
Although production and trafficking would still be a crime, the report also recommends users be allowed to grow their 30 grams themselves.
Although no timetable for creating a bill based on these recommendations has been put forward, the report has already caused ripples that have reached as far as the Supreme Court of Canada.
Supreme Court judges have delayed a federal case against pot smoking, given Cauchon's comments about his plans to decriminalize marijuana. Three pot smokers, two from B.C. and one from Ontario, are challenging the government on constitutional grounds.
The debate over the legality of marijuana use is not new in Canada. For decades, proponents have argued that it is relatively harmless, or at least less harmful than the most common used drugs in the country -- tobacco and alcohol.
But policy makers have never moved toward legalizing grass, although use for medical reasons is now common.
Every year, police seize millions of dollars worth of plants grown in corn fields or in indoor hydroponic operations in urban centres.
About once a week, the Niagara Regional Police morality unit shuts down massive indoor hydroponic operations that can produce from 300 to 500 plants each. Police peg the street value of each plant at around $1,000.
At a unmarked St. Catharines warehouse, NRP stores piles of tubing, trays, wires, lamps and other equipment used in growing operations, largely controlled by Vietnamese gangs moving into Ontario from British Columbia, the NRP said. The warehouse is so full that police are opening a second facility to handle the volume of seized property.
While police remain adamant that grass shouldn't be legalized in any amount, Nicholls said the law is not often brought to bear on small-time personal users. Police, he said, have bigger fish to fry.
Small grows can found all over Niagara, police say, but the NRP morality unit is focused on the large, illicit commercial operations often set up in vacant houses. Decriminalization would not effect these large police operations, but it has nevertheless triggered the old "slippery slope" argument.
"So how did they set 30 grams? Why not 40 or 50 grams?" said Lastewka. "Maybe somebody will be able to push it to 100 grams. It will be slippery slope and where does it stop?"
The United States appears to be worrying about the slippery slope as well, although not because American officials are concerned about the potential for more addicts in Canada.
The worry is that decriminalization will see more grass on Canadian streets, more money in the hands of organized crime and, as a result, so more marijuana flowing south.
The day the Commons' committee report was released, John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, warned of serious border slowdowns because of the threat posed by marijuana exports to America from Canada.
During a news conference in Buffalo that day, he said 95 per cent of the pot grown in B.C. is headed for the United States. Possible U.S. retaliation against Canadian decriminalization is being treated seriously by Niagara's federal politicians. Lastewka said his conversations with American lawmakers have indicated the United States, still rattled from the terrorist attacks of September 2001, isn't bluffing.
"You know, after Sept. 11 Canada was blamed for everything. They said the terrorists were entering the U.S. from here," Lastewka said. "They have been looking for reasons to really tighten up the border."
He said Canadian politicians have been trying to urge the U.S. to keep their borders open while working out details for reasonable security measures.
Lastewka expects the marijuana issue to be front and centre when Canadian and American officials meet in Niagara-on-the-Lake in May to discuss border issues. There may be other ways to reduce the costs of keeping marijuana illegal, says Lastewka.
"The big thing seems to be the criminal record," says Lastewka, who has been meeting with police, doctors and politicians about the issue since the Commons' report was released last week.
"If that is the case, the laws could be changed to have a record wiped out after a certain number of years. But it has to remain illegal."
DID YOU INHALE?
Three of them never so much as tried it and the one who did became sick over it. Here is what Niagara MPs said when asked if they ever fired up a joint:
- Walt Lastewka, St. Catharines: "I never tried it. I am non-smoker and was always playing too many sports to even think about it. The hardest thing I ever smoked was a cigar when I was playing juvenile hockey after a big win."
- Gary Pillitteri, Niagara Falls: "I have never smoked it. I have no intention to start smoking and, to be blunt, I don't think anyone else should either."
- Tony Tirabassi, Niagara Centre: "I tried it once years ago when I was playing cards one night with some buddies. A joint was being passed around so I thought 'What the hell?' and tried it. Well, not long afterwards, I got really sick to my stomach and I thought, 'Well, this sure isn't fun.' "
- John Maloney, Erie-Lincoln: "I have never tried it. Never had an interest to. I can't even say I tried it and didn't inhale. There was nothing to inhale."
Ran with fact box "Did You Inhale?" which has been appended to the story.
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