Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Almost 600,000 reasons Harper’s pot policy doomed

VICTORIA - It wasn’t exactly a newsflash that British Columbians are fond of marijuana. All those jokes about BC Bud have to be based on something.
But last week’s report on marijuana use in B.C. from the University of Victoria’s Centre for Addiction Research should be a reminder of the need to overhaul our policies on pot.
And it should be a special warning to the Harper government that tougher enforcement, longer sentences and hardline rhetoric are doomed to be costly failures. In B.C. especially, an effort to wipe out marijuana use - and by extension production and sale - has about the same chance of success as banning alcohol.
Governments concerned about the negative effects of marijuana use need to come up with a smarter approach.
The problem for the get-tough crowd is that the B.C. public doesn’t buy the idea that marijuana use should be a crime.
A majority of British Columbia adults have used marijuana, the study found, about 1.8 million people.
More significantly, almost 600,000 used pot in the last 12 months. That’s more people than voted for either the NDP or the Liberals in B.C. in the last federal election and almost equal to the number who voted Conservative.
That reality has at least three significant public policy implications.
First, a get-tough approached based on the argument that marijuana is an imminent threat is doomed. Marijuana still trails far behind alcohol as a drug of choice - about 2.7 million of us reported drinking in the last year. But by the time almost 600,000 people are using marijuana occasionally the chances of winning public support for a big criminal crackdown have vanished.
It doesn’t matter if politicians think that’s good or bad. It’s reality. Arrests for cannabis-related offences have doubled in the last decade, with 75 per cent of them for possession. There’s been no effect on use.
Second, that traditional efforts to attack the supply side - more police, longer sentences and all the rest - won’t work. When demand for a product is strong and there’s widespread public acceptance of it, than the laws of the market take effect. Suppliers will emerge to meet the demand. Shut down one, and another will step forward. That’s the lesson of Prohibition in the U.S. and of virtually every drug strategy since.
And third, that the risks marijuana - and other drugs - pose in terms of public health and safety will not be addressed as long as governments pursue a doomed strategy.
And there are risks, contrary to the claims of some marijuana advocates. The centre’s study found that about 10 per cent of users were at moderate risk of problems related to their marijuana use. No one could imagine that daily marijuana use is a good thing for an already unmotivated 15-year-old. And production and sales are fattening the bank accounts of organized criminals.
But as long as the emphasis is on talking tough, then there’s little time or money left for education about risks, smart use or recognizing and dealing with problems.
There’s no targeted effort to restrict access to youth, as there is for alcohol and tobacco. (The report notes daily use of marijuana is now more common among young Canadians than tobacco.)
And criminals still profit from sales.
At the same time, the resources going toward marijuana enforcement could be better spent. About half of drug arrests in Canada in 2004 were for cannabis offences, the study notes. Most Canadians would likely welcome broader efforts to curb meth, heroin and cocaine use, the drugs driving crime in most cities.
The former Liberal government appeared to be heading toward decriminalization for possession of pot and up to three plants. (That alone would likely make a big dent in the profits of from criminal grow-ops)
But the Harper government has so far talked about enforcement and tougher penalties, the old language of prohibition.
It’s not going to work. The study makes that obvious.
Footnote: When a drug reaches a certain level of use, enforcement becomes impossible. A University of the Fraser Valley study on grow ops found that in 1997 police across B.C. investigated more than 90 per cent of grow-op reports within one month. By 2003, that had fallen to 50 per cent. Up to 25 per cent of reports were never followed up.


BC Mary said...

I was ambivalent about marijuana until recently, when I met someone who is stricken with a nasty, incurable disease called sclerodoma. It causes the connective tissues to thicken and harden, affecting the entire body, including breathing.

I saw her in a state of collapse after a long day. I saw her excuse herself, to go and spend rather a long time in the bathroom. Then I watched her return, with her head up, shoulders squared, walking normally. She was comfortable again. There was a gentle aura of spice around her.

Well ... if that's what marijuana can do for people, I realized that the real crime is in preventing free use of this remedy. As a pick-me-up, it looks a lot more benign than a jolt of alcohol.

Meantime, there's organized crime for police to go after -- cocaine, guns, human trafficking, gambling, graft, corruption ...

Anonymous said...

Great post! I agree wholeheartedly that our drug laws need to reflect reality. Persecuting pot-smokers is a bad idea and it is not supported by the public. I hope cannabis consumers continue to pressure the government to abandon the prohibition rhetoric once and for all.

Anonymous said...

it's a shame that the tories are so uptight about pot. in his brief tenure, harper has done alright and he seems like a smart guy. don't you think that there are at least a few acolytes of william f buckley in his govt who could quote him: "The laws aren't exactly indefensible, because practically nothing is, and the thunderers who tell us to stay the course can always find one man or woman who, having taken marijuana, moved on to severe mental disorder. But that argument, to quote myself, is on the order of saying that every rapist began by masturbating. General rules based on individual victims are unwise."

However, the current laws regarding marijuana are confusing. Court levied fines are the de facto taxation on growers. Who even gets arrested for puffing these days, except for publicity seekers like marc emery.

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