Sunday, August 01, 2004

Scary crime stats and the war on drugs

VICTORIA - We treat each batch of crime statistics like some campfire ghost story, eagerly looking for new reasons to be frightened by a dangerous world.
So when Statistics Canada reported a jump in property crime in B.C. this week it was big news and a hot discussion topic. The main theme was that our corner of the world is becoming less safe, and the most commonly offered solution was more police and longer sentences.
Except that the scary story was just about as made-up as those campfire tales about one-handed killers and midnight callers.
Violent crime in B.C. dropped again this year, as it has for at least the past seven years. The rate of violent crime - and your chances of becoming a victim - has fallen by 15 per cent since 1996. You're safer, not at greater risk.
Property crime did jump by almost six per cent last year. That's worrying. But it's no cause for panic, any more than the six-per-cent drop in 2000 was a cause for wild celebration. There are just too many variables for single-year statistics to have much meaning. (For example, Vancouver police started letting people report crimes over the Internet last year, a positive change that likely increased the number of reported offences.)
And again the long-term trend is positive. The property crime rate has fallen by about 10 per cent since 1996. Some of that improvement is likely because people no longer report minor offences, but the numbers show that things are not all that bad.
There's nothing wrong with ghost stories. Perhaps worrying about imaginary dangers offers us a distraction from the more complex, real ones out there.
But they're a dangerous basis for public policy, as revealed by our costly, failed efforts to deal with marijuana use.
Statistics Canada's latest survey on drug use found that 16 per cent of British Columbians 15 and over had used marijuana in 2002 - about 525,000 people. Across Canada, more than one-third of people from 15 to 24 has used marijuana in the last year. The likely rises to about 45 per cent in B.C., based on StatCan's numbers.
It's impractical for any government to think that it can enforce laws that make criminals of so many citizens.
The B.C. government disagrees and opposes the federal Liberals' move to decriminalize pot possession. Grow ops, trafficking and smuggling are enriching organized crime, it argues, and wants tougher penalties.
Facts about the extent of the problem are scarce. There's lots of talk about the need for tougher drug enforcement to stop a flood of B.C. marijuana into the U.S. But a recent RCMP report noted U.S. Customs seized 27 times more marijuana along the Mexican border than they did on the Canadian side, an indication that B.C.'s export role may be overblown.
And while there's also lots of talk about violence, an RCMP study of 12,000 B.C. grow -op reports revealed guns were found at six per cent; overall about 24 per cent of homes in the province have firearms.
An illegal, profitable activity is certain to attract some serious criminals.
But attempts to solve a drug problem by attacking sources of supply have consistently failed. America's Prohibition experiment in the '20s showed that if enough people want a drink, or any other product,, suppliers will meet the demand.
Tougher laws won't change that reality. The U.S. has also tried extreme penalties in drug cases. But the RCMP report noted that most American marijuana is still grown domestically and it's widely available. (In any case, jailing people for years for providing a product used by half-a-million British Columbians would bring justice into disrepute.)
There's no simple solution. But if the objective is to deal with organized crime, then perhaps resources should be shifted from dealing with the thousands of small grow ops to focused enforcement. Or perhaps cultivation of a few plants should be legalized, a change which would take the profits - and the gangs - out of the business.
There's nothing wrong with a good ghost story. But our sense of safety, and our response to crime, they're better based on fact.
- From the Vancouver Sun

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