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Source: Montreal Gazette (CN QU)
Published: Saturday, September 18, 2004
Copyright: 2004 The Gazette, a division of Southam Inc.
Contact: [email protected] 

The way things are going in Quebec, nobody should be surprised to see the emergence of some kind of fall equivalent of the spring sugaring-off ritual, to mark this province's annual pot harvest. At the very least, this weekend's two-part Gazette series on marijuana cultivation should give pause to legislators who have been slow to grasp the urgent need for clarification of the legal uncertainties surrounding this drug.

For example, simple possession of marijuana is still illegal in Canada, despite the perception that that's no longer the case. A federal bill to decriminalize - make possession of a small amount for personal use an offence about like a parking ticket, rather than a crime - died when the June election was called.

The difference between decriminalization and full legalization seems lost on many Canadians. Nor is it well-understood whether simple possession is the same thing as simply choosing to grow a few pot plants for personal consumption in a basement apartment.

It's really out in the vast corn fields of southwestern Quebec, however, that the big story about marijuana is unfolding. And the story is simply this: Quebec is no longer a net importer. Like the rest of Canada, this province has become one of the world's fastest-growing suppliers, an aggressive exporter renowned for producing pot with concentrations of the drug's active ingredient up to 20 times greater than in the imported pot of the 1960s and '70s.

Canada's marijuana crop has a cash value estimated at as much as half the value of all the country's legal cash crops. So it's no surprise that organized crime has moved in.

Many farmers are now willingly or unwillingly leasing parcels of land that can't be seen from the road, for prices imposed by the dope grower. Threats and intimidation ensure compliance with these criminal agribusinesses.

Even Crown-owned lands, deep in wooded areas that rarely see the footsteps of farmers or hunters, are being deforested to assure sunshine for pot plantations that can only be detected from the air.

The social impact has not been good. High schools in rural areas between Montreal and Quebec City are reporting increased student absenteeism during harvest season, while mayors and employers say demand for crop pickers at $25 an hour has created temporary labour shortages.

As much as police try to get a grip on the situation, they are also trying, quite rightly, to get across the message that this is a problem that can't be handled by law enforcement alone. Indecision and delay at the political level have created legal uncertainties, discouraged law enforcement, and encouraged both cultivation and consumption.

The last thing we need is de-facto legalization by legislative inertia and police confusion.

This issue should be a priority for the federal government, so that a new law, can be in place by next harvest season. Clear policy, clear law, proper tools for enforcement: That's what's needed. In particular, farmers need help to resist hostile takeover bids from Quebec's new breed of domestic drug lords.

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