Source: Vancouver Sun (CN BC)
Published: Wednesday, March 10, 2005
Copyright: 2005 Vancouver Sun
Contact: [email protected]
Given the enormous social and financial costs of criminalizing
marijuana, and since no country seems willing to proceed with full
legalization, lawmakers look for a middle ground between legalization
That third way -- decriminalization -- is what the federal government
has chosen with Bill C-38. Under the proposed legislation, anyone caught
with less than 15 grams of marijuana would not be subject to criminal
prosecution, but would instead receive a fine. People possessing larger
amounts could still be charged criminally.
In principle, the move to decriminalize possession is a good one. Since
the LeDain Commission recommended eliminating the legal prohibition
against possession in 1973, tens of thousands of Canadians have been
saddled with a criminal record and its consequences -- difficulty
securing a job or crossing the border -- simply for possessing a joint.
Recognizing this, police officers in many jurisdictions have ceased
laying charges against those in possession of marijuana, but the
practice varies widely from place to place. The bill will, then, provide
for uniform enforcement of the law across Canada.
Now for the bad side of the bill: That uniform treatment might involve
much greater enforcement of the law since police officers will be less
hesitant to issue tickets than they are to recommend criminal charges.
But increased enforcement can have unintended effects. After the state
of South Australia decriminalized possession in 1987, police issued
tickets to many young people who would otherwise have received a
warning. Those who were unable to pay fines ended up in court and
received criminal convictions, thereby defeating the purpose of
Under Bill C-38, those unable to pay tickets won't face criminal
convictions, but there is little doubt that the potential exists for
greater enforcement. The government has made it clear that it considers
increased enforcement a good thing, although it's unclear why.
After all, we know that the strength of the law, and the frequency of
its enforcement, have no effect on the rates of marijuana use.
Consequently, there are only a few reasons for favouring increased
enforcement: Either the government expects increased revenues from the
tickets (doubtful, since governments will have to pay for increased
policing costs), or it hopes that maintaining the legal prohibition on
marijuana will appease the American government, which has expressed its
displeasure with Ottawa's plans to decriminalize possession.
Now the downright ugly aspect of Bill C-38: The bill will do nothing to
weaken the enormous power crime syndicates exert over the drug trade --
in fact, it will likely strengthen the hand of organized crime.
The bill leaves the trafficking provisions of the Controlled Drugs and
Substances Act as they are, thereby allowing organized crime to maintain
its stranglehold on the business.
In addition, the bill strengthens penalties for the cultivation of
marijuana. Those convicted of growing more than 50 plants will face up
to 14 years in jail, twice the time they currently face. The feds have
trumpeted this aspect of the bill, saying it affirms their commitment to
reducing the supply of marijuana.
Yet 75 years of evidence has revealed that legal regimes have no effect
on the supply of illegal marijuana: As with most drugs, marijuana supply
is dictated by demand.
But just as outlawing drugs helped to create and sustain crime
syndicates, the harshness of the law does have an effect on the degree
to which organized crime controls the drug trade. The predictable result
of the harsher penalties in the new legislation is that "mom and pop"
grow-ops will be deterred, leaving crime syndicates to fill the vacuum,
since no penalty is likely to deter them.
As such, the new legislation plays right into the hands of organized
crime by giving it an even greater stranglehold on the marijuana
industry. The middle way -- moderating penalties for possession of
marijuana while increasing penalties for its cultivation -- could well
be a worst case scenario, even worse than leaving the law as it is.
The alternative -- legalization -- is one no country has taken yet, but
it's an alternative the international community should consider. Canada
can lead the way by explaining to the world the benefits of this
radically different approach to dealing with marijuana.
Tomorrow: Toward legalization.
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