Pubdate: Fri, 06 Sep 2002
Source: Vancouver Sun (CN BC)
Copyright: 2002 The Vancouver Sun
Author: Neil Boyd, Special to the Sun
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Canada)


Criminology Professor Argues That Decriminalization Is Only A Small Step 
Toward Saner Policies

In 1972 -- 30 years ago -- the LeDain Commission recommended the abolition 
of the criminal offence of possession of marijuana. Now a Senate committee 
is recommending full legalization, and even the federal justice minister, 
Martin Cauchon, is suggesting it may be time to take a tepid first step and 
decriminalize -- adding that this does not mean marijuana would be legal.

What is he telling us? Details of what Cauchon has in mind -- and it's his 
views, not the Senate's that will prevail -- are sketchy. But we can guess 
that decriminalization of possession will change little in how police 
enforce marijuana law, or how those who distribute the drug go about their 
business. Distribution will continue to be illegal and hence profitable; 
police will continue to arrest distributors and work to obtain convictions 
- -- no shortage of employment for both the controllers and the controlled in 
this game of hide-and-seek.

In 1972, marijuana was an import-export business, with ships coming into 
Canada's west coast ports from Colombia and Thailand, hashish flowing into 
eastern Canada from Lebanon and Afghanistan, and cannabis from Jamaica and 

Small-scale distributors went to jail for lengthy periods, and in the late 
1960s almost half of all users were sent to prison for their crimes.

That initial "get tough" policy did little to stem the tide in marijuana 
use. Convictions in Canada increased from about 1,000 a year in 1967 to 
almost 40,000 a year by 1976. Penalties gradually moderated, with a fine 
replacing imprisonment as the most common response to possession. 
Convictions for use have continued to mount in the past 25 years; 
successive governments have now handed out almost 700,000 criminal 
convictions for cannabis possession.

In the 1980s, the industry changed dramatically. Although some hashish 
continues to flow into eastern Canada from abroad, marijuana is now an 
industry of domestic production, supplying consumers through indoor and 
outdoor cultivation. Advocates for cannabis use and for medicinal use of 
cannabis have become increasingly bold, openly selling seeds and clones and 
suggesting that attempts to close down the industry smack of a kind of 
"cultural genocide."

Most of those who now sit in the House of Commons have probably tried 
cannabis. A survey of my graduating class, Osgoode Hall Law School, 1977, 
revealed that 85 per cent of us had. We are now in our late 40s and 50s 
and, although most of us no longer consume the "herb," we know it is a 
pretty insignificant drug in contrast to two of the others we deal with on 
a daily basis -- tobacco and alcohol. As one police officer recently told 
me, if it weren't for alcohol he'd probably have only a part-time job.

This is not to say the young hempsters have it all figured out today in 
their cannabis crusade -- marijuana is not a wonder drug that can cure 
anything from psoriasis to angina. It's just another psychoactive that has, 
in some restricted circumstances, some medical benefits -- and relatively 
few risks for the casual recreational user.

In a more rational world, we'd probably give up the notion of criminalizing 
cannabis and work to regulate the drug to reduce some of the risks that it 
poses. It belongs in the liquor store, alongside those more dangerous 
drugs, and with similar age and place restrictions. It is both reasonable 
and responsible to say no to marijuana in public schools, or in any other 
public setting, for that matter.

The decriminalization of marijuana possession is a limited measure, to be 
applauded for putting an end to the criminalization of cannabis users, but 
to be queried for serving to entrench both the illegal industry and its 
control. The government will promise to go easy on users, but commit more 
funding to sniffing out grow-ops, a policy that will keep police officers 
employed, but will do little of value for public health or public safety.

And the illegal drug distributors? Well, they emerge as the big winners 
with a simple decriminalization of possession. They can carry relatively 
small amounts of marijuana with them without fear of arrest. Their business 
of distribution is made a little more easy by the commitment to back away 
from consumers, and their profitability is ensured by the promise of a 
continuing and more vigorous law enforcement.

This enforcement increases the risk of doing business, leading in turn to 
an increased cost -- easily passed along to the consumer.

Controlled regulation of the drug is the option that those involved in this 
criminal activity would like least. Their $100,000 annual profit from 
grow-ops in a small bedroom would go up in smoke, so to speak.

So we may well see decriminalization of possession in Canada in the months 
ahead, but let's not clap too loudly when that glorious day arrives. It 
will only be a small step on a road to a more rational policy.

Neil Boyd is a professor at Simon Fraser University's School of Criminology.
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