VICTORIA - B.C.'s approach to marijuana makes about as much sense as America's great Prohibition experiment in the '20s.
In both cases, the governments took aim at substances which are widely accepted. And in both cases, they decided that the way to achieve the goal was to wipe out the supply.
It's a doomed approach, as Prohibition established. The only big winners are serious criminals.
StatsCan has just released a new survey on drug use, which found that 16 per cent of British Columbians 15 and over had used marijuana in 2002. That's about 525,000 people, not nearly as many who knocked back a few beer on a Friday night but still an awful lot of people to portray as criminals.
Among younger British Columbians marijuana use is even more prevalent. Across Canada, more than one-third of people from 15 and 24 has used marijuana in the last 12 months. The data suggests the percentage is about 45 per cent in B.C.
You can't arrest half-a-million people.
So Solicitor General Rich Coleman is advocating more enforcement, and tougher penalties, for the people who supply marijuana. He said the StatsCan results showed the need for the courts to get tough with people who run grow ops.
It's a doomed approach, like Prohibition.
Economic laws are just as powerful as the ones passed by politicians. When enough Americans wanted a drink after work, suppliers - from Al Capone to neighborhood bootleggers - emerged to meet the demand. When millions of Canadians have decided they want to smoke pot from time to time, then suppliers will emerge. That's the way markets work.
When demand is huge, attacking the supply side won't work. Too many people want to buy and the rewards are too great. And the public is not going to accept harsher and harsher penalties for people growing marijuana that one in six of them consume.
B.C. has tried. Despite the relaxed reputation, police lay a lot of charges. The StatsCan study found the rate of pot use in B.C. was about 25 per cent higher than the national average, the rate at which charges were laid was 75 per cent higher.
It hasn't worked. prompting calls for tougher penalties.
But look south of the border, where the war on drugs has been fought by locking up people.
Fewer than one in five people convicted in B.C. for running a grow op do jail time. In Washington State, almost half those convicted get a jail term of five years or more, Coleman says.
But the only result has been crowded jails. Marijuana is still readily available, and widely used. And despite concern about imports from Canada, most U.S. marijuana is grown domestically.
The B.C. government's stated concern is organized crime, and it's logical that any illegal activity with big cash profits is going to attract serious criminals.
But the current strategy isn't working. It's not reducing use, or the role of organized gangs.
That doesn't mean government has to give up. But it needs a new approach.
One obvious answer is to shift resources from indiscriminately busting grow ops to focusing specifically on organized crime. The Organized Crime Agency of BC - now rolled into the RCMP - complained that a budget freeze left it unable to do its job. That hardly fights with a commitment to tackling the problem.
Another is an education campaign on all drugs, from alcohol to heroin, aimed at young users. Many aren't going to stop using, but with good information they can make much more sensible choices.
And another is to simply be more creative. If the aim is to rob organized crime of marijuana profits, then an easy answer is to turn a blind eye to people growing a dozen plants. Supply increases, prices fall and there's no role for the gangs. (An obvious, more complicated solution would be to legalize marijuana, placing it under government regulation.)
The choices are complicated. But one thing is clear - what we're doing now isn't working.
Footnote: The government also needs to be on the alert for unintended consequences. The Organized Crime Agency noted last year that efforts against grow ops had driven gangs into the production of crystal meth, a drug taking a terrible toll on young British Columbians.