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Suburbanizing Organized Crime


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Source: National Post (Canada)
Author: Colby Cosh, National Post 
Published: Friday, October 31, 2003
Copyright: 2003 Southam Inc.
Contact [email protected]

On Wednesday the Post revealed some remarkable facts taken from a confidential RCMP intelligence report on household marijuana factories ("grow-ops"). It seems the pot business is now "epidemic" in suburbs in Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia; the annual Canadian marijuana harvest is estimated to be on the order of 800,000 kilograms. Dan McTeague, a Liberal MP uncomfortable with his government's progress toward decriminalizing marijuana possession, offered an interesting response to the report. "The issue of decriminalization has obscured the real problem here," says Mr. McTeague. "We seem to have lost sight of the profound implications for public security that stems from marijuana grow operations."

Heh. Dude, check it out -- he said "stems."

Mr. McTeague certainly has a point. In British Columbia particularly, the prevalence of grow-ops has brought violent crimes normally associated with the inner city to more affluent suburbs. More and more often, owners of $300,000 houses are awakening to the clanging sounds of a machete fight next door. Home invasions and ordinary burglaries, the cops say, are increasing. It is typical for a "grow-op" to steal electricity from neighbours so as to disguise the heavy spike in energy usage which such an operation entails, and which would normally attract immediate police attention.

All this does have implications for the security of people who might have thought they were too rich to have to live alongside bikers and gangsters. And it's happening for one reason: Marijuana is illegal. The business is controlled by organized crime, and provides its foot-soldiers with a livelihood, only because Imperial Tobacco isn't allowed to take it over. Grow-ops are found in suburban houses only because it is unwise to grow marijuana in the open. And violence follows grow-ops around only because pot growers can't call the cops when someone is trying to rip them off. Legalize the mass production of marijuana tomorrow, and the "security" issue would evaporate. No one who refuses to acknowledge that we are suburbanizing organized crime to attain some unknown reduction in marijuana use should be considered a reasonable participant in discussions about drug law.

Yet Liberal Bill C-38, the measure (now in legislative limbo) that would have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, would also have markedly increased the maximum criminal penalties for marijuana cultivation. And even this wasn't good enough for police lobby groups, who, like Mr. McTeague, want to implement minimum penalties for pot growing. (Sure, we hand out flimsy conditional sentences to sex criminals, but drug dealers? Those guys are bad!) Going after the supply in this way will guarantee that marijuana continues to be artificially scarce, and therefore expensive, and therefore profitable. Any such measure will only make the "security" issue worse by raising the legal and financial stakes for the growers.

Why does Mr. McTeague think grow-ops steal electricity from homeowners? They could afford the stuff if they were allowed to buy it, no doubt. But since growing pot already puts you at risk of a heavy jail term, why not steal? There are a whole lot of people out there reading this, I know, who pretend to be baffled when anyone suggests there is a difference between a "victimless" crime, like pot growing, and a real crime, like theft. Can they really mean that having a neighbour manufacture reefer in his basement bothers them as much as having a neighbour steal electricity from them would?

What's interesting is how completely attacks on the supply of marijuana have failed to affect demand, which seems to react to the cultural environment far more elastically than to legal incentives. A Health Canada poll presented to the House of Commons last week shows that marijuana is now more popular than tobacco with teenagers (which is just as well, since it is probably safer). It is easier for teens to obtain a drug that is illegal for everybody than it is to obtain a drug that is illegal just for them, because there's an established, unregulated system of unlawful distribution in place for the latter. There isn't one, yet, for tobacco -- but there will be, if the taxes on it continue to rise. A 68-year-old farmer near Vulcan, Alta., was busted on Tuesday for running a combined pot/tobacco factory; he was caught with 900 illicit tobacco plants and hundreds of bundles of dried tobacco leaves. Police described it as a "tobacco grow-op." Remember that phrase: You'll probably see it again.

If we proscribed tobacco completely, we would naturally expect illegal grow-ops to spring up in tens of thousands of houses overnight. If we subjected tobacco growing to the same penalties that pot growing brings, those grow-ops would quickly become another lucrative monopoly for the irretrievably anti-social. More innocent homeowners would find their energy bills unaccountably high at the end of each month, and more rich suburbanites would suddenly find that they have new neighbours named "Big Al" and "Stinky." And whether or not you consider marijuana qualitatively different, as a substance, from tobacco, the economic laws governing its creation and distribution are the same. They're the same, in fact, as they are for frappuccino and Pepsodent.

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