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The Fraud of Pot Decriminalization 


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Source: National Post (Canada)
Author: Dan Gardner, The National Post 
Published: Thursday, July 29, 2004
Copyright: 2004 National Post 
Contact [email protected]

With Paul Martin's announcement that the government will reintroduce legislation decriminalizing the possession of marijuana, the old debate has resumed. On one side are the hardliners who say that any softening of the marijuana laws puts the nation at risk of becoming the world's biggest hippie commune. On the other side are those who think it's absurd that a 16 year old caught with a joint should be saddled with a criminal record -- or that an adult should be threatened with jail simply because he chooses to relax on a Friday night with a puff of marijuana instead of a belt of scotch.

Every poll shows a clear majority of Canadians endorses the government's plan -- which would make possession and use of small amounts of marijuana a non-criminal offence, like a speeding ticket. And a good many within that majority, including the National Post's editorial board, would go further: As a Post editorial put it last week, decriminalization should be "only a first step" toward the full legalization of marijuana.

My sympathies are entirely with the Post's editorial board. But I'm afraid I cannot share its enthusiasm for decriminalization: Contrary to what the government likes to say and just about everyone thinks, decriminalization will not mean less persecution of midnight tokers. In fact, it will lead to more enforcement and punishment. Indeed, that's what the government expects and wants.

In January, 2003, I used the Access to Information Act to request all Department of Justice files relating to decriminalization and marijuana policy. After a series of delays and missed deadlines, I finally received a thick stack of paper last February.

Leafing through the documents, several facts quickly became apparent. First, in deciding to make reforms, the government did not conduct a serious review of marijuana policy. Nor were options other than decriminalization mentioned, except in passing.

This omission is particularly bizarre because: In 2002, a Senate special committee delivered a comprehensive 650-page report calling for the full legalization of marijuana possession and the licensing of marijuana producers. International experts, those who agreed with the conclusions as well as those who didn't, lauded the report as one of the most rigorous studies ever produced. Yet the government ignored it. The few references to the report in the Department of Justice documents I examined consist mainly of talking points, which advise government figures to tell the media: "The Senate report will be a very helpful contribution to the development of Canada's drug strategy." There's no discussion of the report's arguments and conclusions. No analysis of its voluminous evidence. No substance at all.

When I told Senator Pierre-Claude Nolin, the chairman of the committee, that the report had been ignored, he was shocked. He said he had personally briefed then-justice minister Martin Cauchon. According to Mr. Nolin, "he told me he was to ask his department to review the report and give him an analysis."

I found another surprise in a draft Cabinet submission labelled "secret."

In a policy backgrounder on decriminalization, the Cabinet submission notes a phenomenon criminologists call "net widening," which essentially means that when punishments are reduced, enforcement typically goes up. That's because police officers often let minor offenders get away with a warning when they feel that a criminal charge and sentence is too severe under the circumstances. Reduce the punishment and fewer offenders are let go. The law's "net" is effectively cast wider.

Marijuana decriminalization is likely a classic net-widening policy. Most police officers, like most Canadians, think criminal charges for pot possession are excessive and not worth the associated administrative burden. So they often tell petty offenders to hand over the baggie and go home. Contrary to what ministers like to say in selling decriminalization, it is very unlikely that an otherwise innocent teenager caught with a joint will see the inside of a courtroom, and even more unlikely that he will be saddled with a criminal record. It happens, but it is rare.

Decriminalization, by contrast, would introduce a ticketing system that reduces the paperwork involved. And it would bring punishments more in line with what the average cop might accept as fair. Enforcement and punishment would soar.

This is no mere conjecture. It's precisely what happened in South Australia when marijuana was decriminalized in 1987.

The draft Cabinet submission notes all this, and concludes that decriminalization in Canada "will likely increase enforcement." Quite true. But the astonishing thing is that this conclusion is listed under "Advantages."

In other words, decriminalization is a fraud. Reformers support it because they think it means easing back the heavy hand of the law. In reality, it will do the opposite -- and the government knows it.

This deception is appalling. So is the failure of decriminalization, unlike legalization, to take back the marijuana trade from criminals and gangsters.

But perhaps the most destructive aspect of the policy would be the image it creates in the public's mind. Many Canadians already mistakenly believe our drug laws are quite liberal. And if decriminalization passes, that assumption will become universal. Canadians who agree that the status quo is a mistake -- their ranks are growing daily -- would conclude that major reform has been accomplished and the drive for real change would peter out.

Plus, you can bet your last dime bag that any bad news about drugs in the future -- rising usage rates, gang wars over the trade, whatever -- would be blamed on our "liberal" drug laws.

This is why the Post is mistaken for endorsing decriminalization. Sensible folks who want real marijuana reform should grit their teeth, join hands with the hawks who want to make war on the weed, and defeat the bill.

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