Monday, September 13, 2004

Da Kine follies a fine symbol for our pot policies

VICTORIA - It's hard to see the people who run the Da Kine pot shop as criminal masterminds.
The little store on Vancouver's Commercial Drive has been the city's most famous site for the last two weeks. Hundreds of hours of police time, lots of media coverage, police and politicians running to and fro, all for a small store that's committed the crime of openly selling marijuana.
No doubt it was a good business, especially once the media told everybody about the opportunity. When police - some 30 of them - finally raided Da Kine they scooped up $63,000.
But despite the cash, Da Kine looks mostly like disorganized crime. If the goal was big profits, they could have quietly kept on selling. Instead, the store operators embraced the publicity, and pretty much dared the police to do something.
Which, or course, they did.
The whole weird saga says something about our doomed war on marijuana.
The story broke that Da Kine was selling over-the-counter marijuana about two weeks ago. Customers had to say they needed the drug for medicinal reasons, but the rules were, shall we say, relaxed.
So the reporters asked police what they knew, and what they were going to do.
We know they're selling marijuana, said Vancouver police. And we're not going to do anything, because - in case you haven't looked around lately - Vancouver has bigger crime problems.
Vancouver city councillors mostly expressed the same ho-hum attitude. As long as nobody gets too upset, they had other issues to worry about.
But then Da Kine kept making the news. Solicitor General Rich Coleman said he was sure police would act. Vancouver politicians started getting a little more worried.
Instead of quietly skirting the law, the Da Kine operators were making police look like they weren't doing their jobs. So they did, scooping up half-a-dozen people.
The next day the store was open for business again. If it keeps making news, the police will probably have to arrest some more people.
It's a bizarre little story, and one that shows just how muddled our approach to marijuana has become. Marijuana possession is a crime, sort of, at least until Paul Martin changes the law. Selling marijuana is a crime, but not one ordinarily of high police interest unless you work at attracting their attention.
The confusion is understandable, since police and prosecutors are in an impossible position. One in six B.C. adults, according to StatsCan, used marijuana in the last 12 months. That's more than half-a-million people, too many to arrest.
Those people are also a significant market, one that is virtually certain to attract people keen on supplying it. The tougher enforcement efforts against them, the higher the profits for those who are successful, the more people who enter the business, and the more likely organized crime becomes involved. (See the U.S. attempt at alcohol Prohibition, and the rise of big-time gangsters.)
Arresting the staff of the Da Kine cafe didn't even shut down the store, let alone make a dent in the marijuana supply.
There was no real alternative to raiding Da Kine, given the operators' provocations.
But there is an opportunity to rethink our overall approach to marijuana.
In a perfect world, few would choose to use a drug to alter their reality - not marijuana, or alcohol, or crystal meth.
But we do, and that leaves three challenges. We need to make sure people, especially young people, get an accurate understanding of the risks of all drugs. We need to have adequate support for people who are dealing with drug problems.
And we need to come up with an effective enforcement approach.
Rushing around ripping up grow ops - or raiding a store - accomplishes nothing. The marijuana supply isn't reduced; organized criminals are only inconvenienced; drug use is unaffected.
And what is the point of that?
Footnote: What are the alternatives? If the aim is organized crime, then come up with more money for law enforcement. The now defunct Organized Crime Agency of BC has complained that a budget freeze left it unable to do its job. For a more radical approach, simply legalize possession of a few marijuana plants. The commercial grow op business would wither away.

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