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Marketing Marijuana Mythology



Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)
Author: Dan Gardner, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: May 17, 2003
Copyright: 2003 The Ottawa Citizen
Contact: [email protected]
Website: http://www.canada.com/ottawa/ottawacitizen/

Is Canada A Drug Haven, Or Is Our Bad Rap All Smoke And Mirrors?

Canada has become a major marijuana producer and exporter. Canadian marijuana is super-potent and dangerous. Canada's laws are too soft to deter growers and traffickers. Major organized crime syndicates control the production and trafficking of Canadian pot.

These "facts" have been repeated over and over by officials, politicians and police officers in Canada and the United States. With the federal government promising the decriminalization of marijuana possession, these claims are playing key roles. They are part of what "everybody knows." Supporters and opponents of decriminalization alike usually accept and cite them to suit their arguments.

But a review of government documents and independent research casts doubt on each of these and other related claims. Some are merely dubious. Some are contradicted by official sources. Some are exaggerations. A few are simply false.

Is Canada going to pot?

Canadian marijuana production and trafficking have reached "epidemic proportions," the RCMP has repeatedly claimed. "The fact that marijuana production is on the rise is indisputable," insists one RCMP report. "In 2001, major Canadian law enforcement agencies seized close to 1.4 million marihuana (sic) plants, a six-fold increase since 1993 .. Cultivation has seen a major increase over the past decade: from a rate of 5 incidents per 100,000 population in 1990 to 29 in 2000."

And Canada's bountiful pot crop is going south, many say. John Walters, the White House's "drug czar" -- the top anti-drug official -- told the Vancouver Board of Trade that 95 per cent of Canada's multi-billion-dollar marijuana production "goes to the U.S."

An RCMP "senior drug investigator," quoted anonymously by the Boston Globe, was less precise but equally emphatic: "Most of it is going straight to the U.S. market."

The situation is so bad that Tom Riley, a spokesman for the drug czar's office, recently told CanWest News Service that the U.S. government added Canada to its list of major drug-producing nations this year: "I think a lot of eyebrows were raised about Canada being on a list with Colombia and Guatemala and Mexico and Haiti and countries like that."

So is Canada really becoming the new Colombia? There are certainly indications of growing marijuana production, but how much growth is not known. Since 1998, the RCMP has pegged total marijuana production at 800 tonnes annually, but that figure is suspect because, as with most forms of data about illicit drugs, Canadian numbers are sketchy at best. A report by the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), an agency within the U.S. Department of Justice, notes that Canada, unlike Mexico, does not have "a statistically valid production estimate" of marijuana production.

As for the seizure and incident numbers cited by the RCMP, they are also weak evidence: Higher law enforcement numbers may show an increase in criminality, or they may show more law enforcement. Marijuana possession charges, for example, soared throughout the 1990s, but that reflected police behaviour, not an explosion in marijuana use. The fact is, no one really knows how much pot is grown in this country, which makes claims of "explosions" and "epidemics" dubious.

Whatever the reality of pot production in Canada, is it true that "95 per cent" or "most" of it is being smuggled into the United States? Not according to government documents. In its latest report, the RCMP states "it is impossible to determine exactly what percentage of marijuana grown in Canada is intended for the U.S. markets." A December 2001 report from the NDIC is more blunt: "A number of international publications have reported that approximately 50 to 60 per cent of the marijuana produced in Canada is smuggled into the United States annually. However, in-depth analysis and consultations between officials of both countries have concluded that these estimates cannot be substantiated through current reporting."

There is even less reason to think the United States is being "flooded" with Canadian pot. A 2001 report from the NDIC noted that seizures of incoming Canadian marijuana are "inconsequential" compared to total American seizures of foreign marijuana. A 2003 report from the NDIC states: "marijuana transported from Canada clearly amounts to only a small percentage of all marijuana smuggled into the United States."

In fact, a recent U.S. Department of Justice study of the American marijuana market -- which scarcely mentioned Canada at all -- concluded that the total pot supply in the United States is somewhere between 10,000 tonnes and 23,800 tonnes: Assuming Canada's pot crop really is 800 tonnes, it would make little difference to the U.S. supply even if every bud, leaf and stem of Canadian pot were smuggled south.

It is also not true, despite what the drug czar's spokesman has said, that Canada was added to the U.S. government's list of major drug-producing countries. The fact that Canada has not been added is significant because U.S. law states that a country must be added if, within its borders, "5,000 hectares or more of illicit cannabis are cultivated or harvested during a year, unless the President determines that such illicit cannabis production does not significantly affect the United States."

Clearly, U.S. analysts are satisfied either that Canada's marijuana crop is not so big or that it "does not significantly affect the United States." Nor is that likely to change: In 2001, the NDIC suggested smuggling from Canada could increase "if the demand for high-grade marijuana in the United States continues," but "when placed in perspective with the large quantities of marijuana smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border, the threat that marijuana smuggling from Canada poses to the United States will remain low."

Not so with the drugs moving north from the U.S. into Canada. "The smuggling of cocaine, liquid hashish, and marijuana through the United States poses a threat to Canada," the NDIC stated in its 2001 report. "The smuggling of hashish and, to a lesser extent, steroids, LSD, MDMA (Ecstasy), and other drugs also poses a threat. Moreover, it is not expected that the threat posed to Canada by the smuggling of these drugs -- particularly cocaine and marijuana -- will abate."

Are soft sentences the problem?

The RCMP has repeatedly blamed soft sentences given to marijuana growers and traffickers for the growth of the trade. "Lenient sentences are what makes Canada somewhat of a haven for marihuana (sic) growers, relative to the United States," an RCMP report claimed. The U.S. government agrees and has pushed Canada to introduce tougher laws.

The Canadian government seems to have conceded this point. As part of the legislation that will decriminalize marijuana possession, the government plans on making punishments for growing and selling marijuana tougher, "which ought to reduce the problem," John Manley told the Toronto Star. Health Minister Anne McLellan has suggested that the police should also be given more money to crack down on marijuana growers.

It is true that penalties are much lighter in Canada than the United States, where sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum sentences usually ensure tough punishment of growers and traffickers? As an RCMP report notes, a Canadian "grower who is found guilty of possessing 45 kilos of marijuana will face a maximum sentence of two years less a day in a provincial jail. If prosecuted as a federal offence, an individual convicted of the same crime in the United States will get between 33 and 87 months in a federal institution, depending on his/her criminal history."

But have severe punishments actually curtailed the marijuana trade in the United States? There doesn't seem to be any evidence of that. The NDIC noted, "96.9 per cent of state and local law enforcement agencies nationwide describe the availability of marijuana as high or medium." America's teenagers agree: "Marijuana appears to be available to almost all high school seniors," concluded a 2001 University of Michigan study, which found 89 per cent of students reported it was "very easy" or "fairly easy" to get marijuana.

And the single largest source of marijuana in the United States is the United States. Indoor and outdoor cultivation is widespread in the U.S., the NDIC notes, and "marijuana production is high."

Tougher sentences don't even seem to suppress drug use, let alone trafficking. In 1998, the U.S. drug czar's office asked a blue-ribbon panel of scientists directed by the prestigious National Research Council of the National Academies of Science to review all evidence about what works and what doesn't in drug control -- including the American experience with decriminalization. In 2001, the panel reported "existing research seems to indicate that there is little apparent relationship between severity of sanctions prescribed for drug use and prevalence or frequency of use, and the perceived legal risk explains very little in the variance of individual drug use."

Is more money for enforcement the answer? Not judging by the experience of the United States, which now spends roughly $40 billion a year fighting drugs. It's also not true that Canada has been under-funding drug enforcement: In 2001, Canada's auditor general found the federal government alone (the provinces and cities actually investigate and prosecute most drug crime) spends around $500 million a year on drugs, with 95 per cent of that money going to law enforcement.

Is pot dangerously potent?

John Walters says the marijuana available today is dramatically more potent and dangerous. Worst of all is Canadian marijuana, which he has called "the crack cocaine" of marijuana.

"The potency of marijuana from Canada is several times the potency of the marijuana we're getting from other sources," he recently told Global National. Law enforcement officials on both sides of the border have said that "B.C. Bud" is so potent that Canadian smugglers trade it in the U.S. pound-for-pound for cocaine.

Federal health minister Anne McLellan is also alarmed, telling journalists recently that Canada must wipe out grow-ops and stop being "an exporter of this new high-potent strain of marijuana." The Boston Globe summed up the conventional wisdom on pot potency in a recent article that warned "Canadian weed has average THC levels of 15 per cent to 20 per cent, while the primo stuff tops out at a mind-numbing 34 per cent. Latin American pot, by contrast, has an average THC content of about 6 per cent. Garden variety reefer smoked by hippies of the Woodstock eras had THC levels of about 2 per cent."

Little of this is true. A 2002 RCMP report cautions that exaggerated claims about marijuana potency are being made in the media and warns that any such claims should be based on "actual laboratory analysis results." The report provides the results of two such analyses. Between 1996 and 1999, a total of 3,160 samples of seized marijuana were tested for THC levels: The average each year varied between 5.5 to six per cent; the top-rated sample was 25 per cent, but samples of more than 16 per cent were extremely rare, and "almost a third of the samples were under three per cent."

A similar analysis of Quebec samples found that in 2000, the average THC content was 6.3 per cent, with a top sample of 18.5 per cent and a low of .07 per cent.

Researchers agree that marijuana potency increased in the 1980s and 1990s, but that increase was modest: Mitch Earleywine, a professor at the University of Southern California, surveys the evidence in Understanding Marijuana (Oxford University Press, 2002). He concluded pot in the United States likely rose from 1.5 or two per cent to four or 4.5 per cent from the 1970s to the 1990s.

It is true that marijuana grown in Canadian hydroponic operations is often in the higher range of potency, but it is far from unique. "Growers in both Canada and the United States have access to the same strains of cannabis seeds and the same cultivation technologies," the NDIC reported in 2001. "Therefore, growers in both countries are capable of producing the same quality of high-grade marijuana."

Nor is Canadian pot as valuable as cocaine. "Reports of the reputed exchange of Canadian marijuana for U.S. cocaine on a pound-for-pound ratio are false," the NDIC declared.

But there's a more basic error underlying the claims about potent pot. "The tacit assumption that increased potency translates into greater danger from the drug may not be true," writes Earleywine. Hashish -- a derivative of marijuana -- can have a THC content as high as 50 per cent. Hashish oil (common in eastern and central Canada but little known in the West) can be up to 70 per cent THC. But there is no evidence that hash or hash oil is doing far more damage to users than ordinary weed.

Users adjust their consumption to suit drug potency. Just as someone sipping pure vodka will not consume the same volume of liquid he does when drinking beer, consumers of more potent pot simply inhale less smoke. This is not mere theory. University of Michigan research on American teenagers' drug habits, which has been ongoing since 1975, has found that as THC content rose, teen pot smokers inhaled "less marijuana as measured by volume."

There's some irony in this. The one indisputable harm of smoking marijuana is the irritation and damage it can inflict on the lungs, and "high-potency marijuana may actually minimize risk for lung problems because less is required to achieve the desired effects," writes Earleywine.

The RCMP and many politicians constantly emphasize the link between the marijuana trade and organized crime.

"Some of the biggest criminal organizations in the world are behind this," RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli said at a conference of police chiefs. "We've seen murders committed in the name of marijuana cultivation."

A 2002 RCMP report stated, "outlaw motorcycle gangs used to enjoy an almost monopolistic situation when it came to marijuana grow operations, but they now have to contend with the increased presence of Asian-based criminal organizations in some parts of the country."

It seems, however, that the RCMP gave a different description of the industry to their colleagues in Washington, D.C.

A January 2003 report of the NDIC states: "the RCMP reports that the majority of cannabis cultivators are Canadian and operate independently but further notes the continued involvement of outlaw motorcycle gangs (primarily Hells Angels) and the growing dominance of Asian criminal groups (typically Vietnamese) in marijuana production."

There's no question major gangs are involved in the marijuana trade, but how much of the industry is really controlled by large, violent, powerful syndicates? Given the secretive nature of the business, it's impossible to answer that question definitively. But recent research suggests the truth is far from the world of The Godfather.

Criminologist Frederick Desroches worked in Canada's prisons, where he interviewed 50 high-level manufacturers, smugglers and traffickers of marijuana and other drugs. A summary of his work appeared in an internal RCMP magazine. (The complete study was recently published in Critical Reflections on Transnational Organized Crime, Money Laundering and Corruption, University of Toronto Press, 2003).

Desroches found a stark divide between what he called "criminal and non-criminal drug traffickers and syndicates." The "criminal" traffickers are the sort we might expect: lifelong criminals who rarely hold legitimate jobs and are "generally willing to use violence in dealing with the problems of the drug world."

The "non-criminal" traffickers, however, "typically have extensive employment histories, associate with other law-abiding persons, begin their criminal careers later in life, operate primarily at the wholesale level and eschew the use of violence." Almost all the drug offenders of this sort that Desroches interviewed had been legitimate entrepreneurs operating small businesses -- body shop, tobacco store, used car lot -- before the profits of the trade convinced them to try a new business. Most worked with just a handful of trusted friends.

The big surprise was the proportion of the two groups: 35 of the 50 drug offenders were of the "non-criminal" variety, while just 15 were hardcore gangsters.

"The marijuana and hashish market, in particular, appears to attract a variety of middle-class dealers who are not part of the criminal world and who are typically non-violent," Desroches wrote. "Police also reported that violence was uncommon in the marijuana and hashish trade."

Desroches' research also demolished the idea of large criminal hierarchies controlling territory. "There is no evidence in this study of a Mafia-style monopoly, near-monopoly, or cartel in the Canadian drug market." Instead, "high-level traffickers work in small groups, are flexible in their organization and division of labour, deal with a small number of clients, insulate themselves from their illegal activities, maintain a low profile, collect tremendous profits, and function as independent entrepreneurs." 

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