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The Clash Over Cannabis


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Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)
Author: Richard Foot, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: March 7, 2004
Copyright: 2004 The Ottawa Citizen
Contact: [email protected]

With So Many Canadians Smoking and Growing Marijuana, Many People - Including a Senate Committee -- Are Questioning Why the Federal Government Is Maintaining Its Prohibition Against the Drug. 

Canadians will consume roughly 2,100 kilograms of marijuana today. This year, three million of us, according to a recent Senate study, will have smoked, eaten or inhaled almost 770,000 kilograms of the stuff -- impressive numbers considering marijuana use is a federal crime. 

It is also a crime to cultivate the weed. Yet police and industry insiders estimate 215,000 growers across Canada produce more than 2.6 million kilograms of cannabis each year. In British Columbia alone, the pot-growing industry is believed to generate up to $6 billion annually, making it one of the West Coast's biggest industries, after forestry and tourism. 

With so many Canadians smoking and growing marijuana, questions are being asked about why the federal government maintains its prohibition against the drug, and how, if the prohibition is sound public policy, police can ever be expected to properly enforce the law. 

"Why doesn't the government stop dragging its feet and implement a fully legal regulatory regime for marijuana for everybody?" says Jody Pressman, a marijuana advocate in Ottawa. 

Says Dana Larsen, editor of Vancouver-based Cannabis Culture Magazine, which sells 85,000 copies every month in Canada and the U.S.:  "Under a fully legalized system, people could grow marijuana commercially and sell it in stores licensed by the government. It could be subject to health controls, quality controls and taxes. It wouldn't have to be more expensive than any other fruit or vegetable." 

Such views are no longer the sole property of the political fringe. Two years ago, the Senate's special committee on illegal drugs interviewed 2,000 witnesses as part of the most exhaustive Canadian study of marijuana in 30 years. The committee's 2002 report urged the federal government to end its 81-year-old prohibition by implementing a system to regulate the production, distribution and consumption of marijuana -- the same as governments do with alcohol. 

"If the aim of ( existing ) public policy is to diminish consumption and supply of drugs, specifically cannabis, all signs indicate complete failure," the report said. "Billions of dollars have been sunk into enforcement without any great effect." 

But the Liberal government is taking another route. It is choosing to decriminalize small-time pot use and to toughen the law against commercial growers and dealers. 

Legislation introduced in the House of Commons last month would make the possession of up to 15 grams of marijuana and up to three marijuana plants no more serious than driving over the speed limit, punishable by tickets and fines of $100 to $500. 

The bill also increases the fines and jail terms for people caught trafficking or growing larger amounts of pot, in an apparent bid to deter organized crime groups, whose entry into the industry in recent years has led to the proliferation of massive commercial grow operations across the country. 

Yet the proposed law isn't making anyone happy. Recreational smokers predict it will push up the demand and the price of marijuana, making it a more attractive cash crop for organized crime. 

People who use the drug for medicinal reasons complain the government should be finding ways to ensure them an effective and legal supply instead of fiddling with changes to the Criminal Code. 

Mothers Against Drunk Driving says the bill will mean more drug-induced traffic accidents, because police have no scientific way to measure how much marijuana impaired motorists might have been smoking. 

Adds Gwendolyn Landolt, vice-president of REAL Women of Canada: "The message this gives Canadian youth is 'Don't drink and drive, just toke and drive.'" 

Police organizations argue that removing their discretionary power to arrest even small-scale marijuana users and growers will hamper efforts to fight the wider drug war. 

"It's one thing to have 15 grams in your house, but should it be permissible to have 15 grams on the street, where someone could be pushing those drugs to kids?" says Kevin McAlpine, chief of the Durham regional police force and co-chair of the organized crime committee for the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police. "That's the fine detail we're concerned about." 

RCMP Chief Supt. Raf Souccar, director general of the Mounties' drugs and organized crime section, says U.S. officials have privately told him they are "extremely upset" by the decriminalization proposals. 

As for the Senate, its 2002 report called decriminalization the "worst case scenario" because it would deprive the government of its ability to regulate and control a drug that decades of lawmaking have failed to suppress. Even the bill's legislative summary warns that tougher marijuana laws could have the opposite effect on organized crime. 

"Ironically, one of the possible consequences of heavier penalties may be to tighten the grip of organized crime on production," the summary says. "It is doubtful that members of criminal organizations would be concerned about heavier penalties." 

The Senate reported that Canada's courts and police spend up to $500 million annually trying to enforce the marijuana laws, particularly against the indoor "grow-ops" owned by biker gangs, Asian syndicates and other organized crime groups. 

Police say at least 70 per cent of Canada's 2.6 million kilograms of cannabis output gets sold in the U.S., much of it smuggled across the border by crime gangs in exchange for guns, ecstasy and cocaine. It's the U.S.'s insatiable appetite for marijuana and the easy money it promises that has lured organized crime into the marijuana business in recent years. 

Marc Emery, an activist who broadcasts Internet-based marijuana programming out of his Pot-TV offices in Vancouver, says the traditional cannabis community isn't inherently profit-focused or prone to violence. He says these are the unwelcome characteristics organized criminals are bringing to the business. 

Police in Ontario have launched a campaign to smoke out gang-operated grow-ops with a co-ordinated effort from hydro companies, banks, insurance and real estate firms. All of these unwittingly provide service to grow-ops in some way, and could help police stop new marijuana operations from moving into homes and other properties around the province. 

Colin Kenny, the Tory senator who co-chaired the Senate's 2002 drugs committee, says such enforcement efforts are doomed to failure. Consider, he says, the parallels between today's expanding problem and the crime-plagued U.S. prohibition on booze in the 1920s. 

"We all know why Al Capone flourished," says Mr. Kenny. 

"It's because the government prohibited something the public was interested in." 

Adds Mr. Larsen of Cannabis Culture Magazine: "These big-time grow-ops will continue to proliferate until marijuana is legalized. The police will keep busting them, not because they're getting better at it, but because there'll be more and more." 

Biker gangs and Asian crime networks aren't the only people growing marijuana. It is also cultivated in every province and territory by people with small and midsize operations, many of them ordinary folks with legitimate day jobs and families. Mr. Emery estimates Canadian growers own an average of 4.5 lights each, producing half a kilogram of pot on average every two months. 

Marijuana magazines and the Internet are filled with how-to, home-growing guides and advice. There are CD-ROMs with pot-growing garden tips, and online seed banks. 

Mr. Emery hawks more than 500 varieties of mail-order seed -- from "Malawi Gold" to "Afghan Dream" to "Nepalese Grizzly" -- out of the pages of Cannabis Culture Magazine, which he publishes. He even markets a brand called "Ben Johnson -- good solid buds and a full, pungent smoke." 

Seed sales, marijuana magazine publishing and increasingly small-time pot smoking fit into a grey area of the law, in which no one seems certain of what's illegal and what's not. Cannabis Culture Magazine is widely sold on newsstands, yet occasionally it is confiscated by police. 

One commercial pot grower on the East Coast who identifies himself as "Jake" is a buttoned-down, 48-year-old owner of a legal manufacturing business with 15 employees. When he's not running his company, he's secretly growing outdoor cannabis crops, with the help of a handful of workers, on dozens of hectares of Crown-owned and private logging land in the wilds of the Maritimes. He says two-thirds of his income comes from marijuana sales. 

"People would be staggered if they knew how many doctors, dentists, accountants and even judges smoke pot," says Jake, who vows he'd sell his legitimate business in a heartbeat, and turn full time to growing marijuana -- happily paying taxes -- if only the federal government would legalize the system. 

He says legalization and government regulation of the distribution and consumption networks would force crime gangs out of the marijuana game, and allow producers like him to cultivate and sell their crops without skulking around in secrecy. 

"It makes no sense to me," he says. "I can legally marry a man in Canada today, but I can't smoke a joint." 

Alan Young, the Toronto law professor who has crusaded for years in the courts for legal access to marijuana, particularly for medicinal users, says there are probably more pot smokers in Canada than gay people, but gays have had more success moving their agenda forward on issues such as same-sex marriage because the gay movement is well-organized and well-funded. Until marijuana activists get their act together, he says, they're unlikely to change the system. 

"There are probably a dozen activist marijuana groups in the country, but they've never been able to work together," says Mr. Young. 

Canada's police chiefs are vocal, well-respected and well-organized opponents of legalizing marijuana. 

"We are morally bound to fight this fight," argues Durham regional police Chief Kevin McAlpine, who also co-chairs the organized crime committee of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police. 

Chief McAlpine says he isn't convinced that cannabis use, although widespread, is far less a drain on the public health system than the effects of alcohol or tobacco. The Senate reported in 2002 that the social and economic costs of cannabis use are "minimal -- no deaths, few hospitalizations and little loss of productivity." 

Not so, says Chief McAlpine. "It's our view that marijuana is not harmless. As for the legalization issue, I haven't yet heard anybody telling me how our American friends would react or how we'd stop the flow of Canadian marijuana across the border. Legalization is just not a mature debate at this point." 

The RCMP's Chief Supt. Souccar says he doesn't know if the marijuana war can be won, but he's certain it should continue. 

"This talk about legalization is very cynical," he says. "What are we going to legalize next -- break-and-enters, rapes and murders? We can't give up, we have to fight smarter, and harder." 

Cannabis Culture Magazine's Mr. Larsen says that throughout history Canada has showed the U.S. how to liberalize its society. He predicts it will do so again with marijuana. 

"We led them on ending slavery, we led them on ending the prohibition on alcohol, and we'll lead them towards ending the prohibition on marijuana. 

"I'm sure I'll see it in my lifetime." 

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