Legalized Pot Seems Likely Up North
Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer (WA)
Author: Mike Lewis, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporter
Published: Friday, January 3, 2003
Copyright: 2003 Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Contact: [email protected]
Vancouver, B.C. -- The door-kicking has stopped, as have the asset forfeitures and harassment. Chris Bennett hasn't been arrested in weeks, nor have any of his friends. Yet, the 40-year-old Bennett isn't inclined to say the battle is won.
He's seen the police relax before. He's seen pot achieve a tenuous level of respectability when a more liberal-minded mayor or police chief takes over. And he's seen the subsequent backlash.
"Every time we talk to the press, something happens," he said, sitting in the store he manages, The Marijuana Party Headquarters.
The store is three blocks from one of Vancouver's toniest shopping districts. While Bennett talks, he selects a handful of sticky green cannabis buds from a dense cluster the size of a hoagie. Pungent bluish haze hangs in the air, and customers casually put flame to pipe as they flip through books about hydroponics.
"I've had friends arrested the next day after talking to reporters about pot. So you can see why I'm nervous."
Nervous but willing to talk. In spite of Bennett's concern, the likelihood of marijuana legalization in Canada never has been stronger -- despite strong U.S. government objections and opposition from within the country.
A working medical marijuana law is in place nationally. Late last year, both the House of Commons and Canadian Senate in official reports endorsed some form of pot legalization, as have the justice minister and prime minister.
Indeed, Justice Minister Martin Cauchon recently promised to ease marijuana laws in 2003, making possession of a small amount punishable with the equivalent of a parking ticket.
In Vancouver, this already has happened, if not in law, then in practice. Although cannabis remains illegal and its possession is a criminal offense, the city effectively has decriminalized it. Police rarely bust the dozens of dealers selling grams of pot and hashish on East Hastings Street. On a Sunday afternoon, pot is nearly as easy to buy as a six-pack of beer.
All of which has made east downtown Vancouver -- where The Marijuana Party storefront sits sandwiched between cafes named The New Amsterdam and Blunt Bros. (motto: A Respectable Joint) -- a bit smokier and, judging from the number of signs offering "munchies," a bit hungrier, too.
"Dude, the cookies rock," said Justin B., a 24-year-old Seattle resident sitting at a cribbage board in Blunt Bros. while his buddies lit up in the cafe's rear-corner smoking booth.
Standing against a backdrop of Grateful Dead iconography, dozens of centerfold-style posters of pot plants and cases of translucent glass pipes, Justin, who asked that his last name not be printed, said he loves Vancouver because the police "let (pot) smokers be."
Which is what U.S. and Washington state authorities fear. Justin is the embodiment of U.S. drug czar John Walters' nightmare.
Walters, fresh from a recent trip to Vancouver to explain to the Canadians how wrongheaded their drug permissiveness is, believes that not only will Americans flock to Canada for drug vacations, but that more pot will find its way into the United States.
"Nothing gets better with more drug use," Walters said in a recent interview. "I think you are seeing in Vancouver a level of denial (among public officials) about marijuana's place among addictive drugs."
Walters' point: According to statistics from his office, pot, not alcohol, is the No. 1 drug treatment issue among U.S. residents under age 18. Nearly 95 percent of the potent pot grown in British Columbia, known broadly as "B.C. bud," heads to the United States for sale, a $4 billion annual industry.
Even the medical claims of pot's usefulness largely are spurious, he added -- a statement hotly disputed by the medical marijuana community.
"I was told by a Canadian official they are sure pot doesn't create dependency. That's archaic in the absurd," Walters said.
"You can walk down the streets in (downtown) Vancouver and the streets are swarming with the openly addicted."
U.S. drug investigators agree. They point to a tent-city on East Hastings that started as a protest to encourage low-income housing but in the past month has become an open-air drug bazaar. Dave Rodriguez, who runs the Seattle-based drug intelligence unit Northwest HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area) team, said drug busts on the U.S.-Canadian border are rising faster than on the Mexican border or the coast.
A decade ago, investigators seized 5,000 kilograms of Canadian pot annually. Last year, agents confiscated 20,000 kilos.
"I can't see how that would improve if the Canadians legalize," Rodriguez said from his downtown Seattle office. "People in Washington (state) should be concerned."
But Canadian officials, including Kash Heed, the officer in charge of the Vancouver Police vice division, wonder what Walters sees in Vancouver that is so different from New York, Chicago or Seattle.
"Exactly what benefit has harsher penalties and 'Just Say No' brought?" asks Heed, whose unusually aggressive push for legalization has alienated him from some of his own officers. "They have addiction at the same rates we do. For some things, we are lower."
Experts on all sides of the issue say the pot market in Canada is driven by U.S. demand, and that many of the addicts in Canada are U.S. citizens.
Marc Emery, who has become his nation's Johnny Weed Seed with his multimillion-dollar cannabis seed business, said three-quarters of his sales are to U.S. customers, many from Washington state.
The 44-year-old Ottawa native said he's been jailed 10 times for the sale of seeds, which he markets online.
Although the jailings recently have stopped, Emery said the government could better spend its money on what he calls "real" criminals.
"I think people are starting to wake up and realize that it can be regulated just like alcohol," he said.
With all of the same liabilities, others assert. Peter Ditchfield, who runs the British Columbia Organized Crime Agency, said pot now is what alcohol was during Prohibition in the United States -- readily available and largely run by organized crime. Making it legal undercut the crime bosses, he agreed, but the problems associated with abuse expanded.
"It becomes a question of what a society is willing to absorb," he said. Canada, he said, always has been a more tolerant society than the United States.
But the pot issue cuts deeper than traditional Canadian tolerance and U.S. anti-drug aggressiveness.
With the Bush administration sending signals to Ottawa that legalization won't be good for diplomatic relations and with Walters blasting the Canadians on their home turf during his November visit, some Canadians, even those who don't favor legalization, have begun to see it as an issue of national sovereignty.
Shopping on Robson Street, just a few blocks from The New Amsterdam, Vancouver resident James Lee said he doesn't think pot should be legalized. But Canadians resent the pressure from the United States on the drug issue, he said.
"Some people will vote in favor of legalization just to spite the American government," he said. "People don't like to be bullied."
Walters said that wasn't his intention. "I'm not presuming to tell Canadians how to run their country."
The conflict isn't just between the United States and Canada, but within the United States as well. Walters' stance and that of the federal government have put the administration at odds with individual states. Various forms of medical marijuana laws have passed in 14 states. In each case, the federal government has said the measures are illegal.
The situation is most acute in California, where federal agents have raided several medical marijuana clubs since the state's voters approved Proposition 215 in 1996. The raids not only have placed federal investigators in conflict with California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, they also have created a new breed of political protester: the pot refugee.
Rene Boje knows this well. In May of 1998, she fled the United States after the federal government busted her and three others for providing pot to two men who were dying of cancer. Steven Kubby, a former Libertarian gubernatorial candidate, also fled when he was busted for having pot to minimize the side effects from his own cancer treatment.
Both say they thought they were protected under the voter-approved initiative. And to an extent, California authorities left them alone. Then came the raids. Both have applied for refugee status. It will be a test of Canadian refugee laws, crafted to consider war and politics objectors, not drug users.
"(The U.S. government) is trying to get me extradited for doing something the voters said I could do," she said, sitting in the New Amsterdam. "The government here is a lot more compassionate."
And tolerant -- at least in Vancouver. Emery said he thinks the time is coming for limited legality of pot. Then, he said, everyone can see that it doesn't create deeper societal problems. After that, he concludes, maybe the big neighbor to the south will follow suit.
"George Bush isn't going to be president forever," said Emery, who owns the Marijuana Party Headquarters where Bennett works. "We just have to keep the flame alive until then."
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