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Canada's Middle Way On The Legalities

 of Pot Might Be The Worst Way


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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 and criminalization.

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 decriminalization.

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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