Thursday, December 26, 2002

Coleman off base with "war on marijuana"
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Defence Minister John McCallum gives up drinking after Air Canada staff decide he's too drunk to board a flight.
Alberta Premier Ralph Klein cuts down after a nasty scene at a homeless shelter, where he argues abusively with residents, throws a handful of bills on the floor and stomps off.
And Ontario Premier Ernie Eves promises to crack down on MLAs drinking on the job after an evening sitting degenerates into vicious, drunken abuse. Drinking on the job has been a constant problem over at least two decades, he admits.
And we're worried about marijuana?
Solicitor General Rich Coleman has weighed in with his views on decriminalizing marijuana, a step backed by federal Justice Minister Martin Cauchon.
A huge mistake, Mr. Coleman says. "I want us to go out and fight the war on drugs because it's hurting our kids, it's hurting our communities and it's time we stood up to it," he said. "We need to come to grips with the fact that this is a serious problem in our country, that we have to get tougher with regard to the penalties."
It's the kind of position that shreds a politician's credibility. First, it's impossible to make a credible claim that marijuana use should be treated as a high priority public menace. Alcohol was directly blamed for about 300 deaths in B.C. last year; hard drugs - and prescription drugs - were blamed for about the same number. For marijuana, pretty much none. Our courts are crowded with people who stole or hurt someone or acted stupidly while they were drunk.
That's not to say pot is harmless. The last thing an unmotivated 15-year-old needs is a drug that will make him more likely to sit around instead of going to class. The healthiest people likely don't use any intoxicants - but most of us do.
But ask any police officer or social worker what causes more problems, alcohol or marijuana, and you'll see the plausibility of the "marijuana menace" claim vanish. (A new RAND study also debunks the idea of marijuana as a gateway drug.)
Coleman did focus on the involvement of organized crime in grow ops, a legitimate concern. Big grow ops mean big, illegal money, and that will attract a range of bad guys. (Although an RCMP study of 12,000 grow op reports in B.C. revealed guns were found at six per cent. About 24 per cent of homes in the province have firearms; police are far more likely to encounter a gun in the average domestic call.)
Increased police pressure hasn't worked. B.C.'s Organized Crime Agency reported that police action on grow-ops was forcing organized crime to switch to methamphetamine labs. That hardly seems like progress.
Instead of a "get tough" stance, government should be tackling the crime problem effectively. Perhaps eliminating the risk of prosecution for people interested in growing a few plants would do the most to make life harder for gangs.
The saddest thing about Coleman's comments is that they undermine the basic foundation for an effective drug strategy.
People need credible information that will let them assess and avoid the risks of all drugs, from cognac to cocaine. Paint a false picture of the risks of marijuana, and you will no longer be believed when you deliver a vital warning about the effects of heroin. That's especially true for young people, lost in their own invulnerability and quick to dismiss any warnings.
They have been to parties with drinkers, and parties with people who have smoked pot. They know where the greatest stupidity and violence are found.
We don't need to wage war on marijuana; we need to get smart on drugs.
Education to avoid damaging addiction. Support for people who want to quit. Harm reduction for people who can't or won't quit.
Solutions that work, not words.
Paul Willcocks can be reached at