Is Canada ready for relaxed marijuana laws?
Date: Sunday, April 27 2003
Topic: International News
By JASON BOTCHFORD, SUN MEDIA
TORONTO --Â It's Sunday morning and the joint is packed. A quick scan of the room finds a group of four teens so committed to getting high they smoke eight power-packed joints in just more than five minutes, double-fisting spliffs in between bites of chicken sandwiches.
This is the most comfortable spot in Vancouver for these 19-year-olds to get high without hassles.
Behind them, four battle-scarred loggers dump seven grams, or "a quarter", of crystal-covered B.C. bud on a foosball table. Each man takes his turn dipping meaty, calloused hands into the pile of weed to start rolling several morning cannons. They're talking about the weather with a city stockbroker whose wife won't let him toke at home in front of his two children.
At this popular cafe in downtown Vancouver, there is no reason to hide your stash. The cops just shrug anyway, resigned to let pot smokers have their way. That's a good thing because there's too much smoke being produced by the 50-odd customers to keep things undercover.
Within arm's reach, on some plush leather couches under a Jerry Garcia image, a pack of college students from Seattle whittle away the brunch hour, smoking pot and marvelling at what has become accepted practice in Canada.
"We love the atmosphere here, it's just like Amsterdam, but in a way it kind of makes me sad," said Jamie Lalli, 21, who chose Canada as a vacation spot after reading about its acceptance of marijuana.
"Canada has all this freedom. It seems so progressive. And here we are coming from the United States which was supposedly built on freedom and progression but instead, in comparison now, it's like we're from a very conservative, backward country."
It's a sign of Canada's high times.
What would have landed these people in handcuffs 10 years ago is now common. It's a reflection of how this country's view of marijuana has dramatically changed in 20 years, thanks to a wave of pot popularity started on the West Coast more than a decade ago.
In recent interviews with SunMedia, various drug cops and police chiefs in the Toronto area have described the marijuana problem in Ontario as "an epidemic", "out-of-control", "a crisis", "a disaster" and "currently uncontainable."
The numbers they have are startling. Three years ago 200 grow operations were searched in Ontario; last year there were 1,400. Three years ago in Durham there were 27 grow operations busted; last year 150. In the York region there were 40 grow operation-based search warrants executed. Last year: 170.
"It was like the growers were here overnight," said York Region morality and vice Det. Mike Klimm, who said there are now about 1,500 grow operations in the region.
"All of a sudden they were everywhere."
The police say they are undermanned, working without enough resources to track and catch an ever-increasingly intelligent and organized collection of growers, smugglers and dealers. They claim it is mostly organized crime syndicates who have stretched their tentacles from B.C. into Ontario.
Police said the criminals are smuggling billions of dollars' worth of Canadian pot into the U.S. each year. Those they do arrest are consistently receiving conditional sentences. Jail time right now is rare.
The most comprehensive study on arrests and convictions was completed last year in British Columbia by researchers at the International Centre for Criminal Law Reform and Criminal Justice Policy. Of 8,010 cases involving people arrested for alleged marijuana cultivation, 25% of those associated with a case were convicted and only 18% of those convicted were sentenced to jail time, with an average length of 4.5 months.
"The penalties and the consequences from the courts are absolutely insignificant. There seems to be no consequences and (the growers) know that," Toronto Police Chief Julian Fantino said in a recent interview.
"The way the courts have been dealing with this is telling criminals they have little to be concerned about. My viewpoint is that Canadian society has to make a choice now. If this is what society wants, then the public and the policy-makers should say this is fine. They would have to change the law because the way it is written now it's a very serious offence."
Fantino understands what polls have been tracking for more than a decade. The public seems to be craving change and an overwhelming majority are losing appetite for prohibition at a steady rate.
The Canadian Medical Association estimates that up to two million Canadians smoke marijuana recreationally.
In the drug war for the hearts and minds of Canadians, the proverbial worm seems to have turned solidly toward legalizing the leaf and the government is preparing to respond.
Last fall, a Canadian Senate committee shook the foundations of the debate when it recommended legalizing marijuana immediately after a comprehensive study that dispelled many long-standing marijuana myths. Among its conclusions:
- Marijuana is "not a gateway" to harder drug, such as cocaine and heroine.
- Fewer than 10% of users become addicted.
- Policing and prosecuting dope smokers is costing Canadian taxpayers $300-$500 million a year, with 70% of that used to deal with possession charges.
The Senate committee found "scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that cannabis is substantially less harmful than alcohol and should be treated not as a criminal issue but as a social and public health issue."
Under the report's guidelines, marijuana use would be restricted to adults, and criminal law would still apply to those producing and selling it.
"It is time to recognize what is patently obvious; our policies have been ineffective because they are poor policies," the committee concluded.
Now the federal government is poised to take its swing with new legislation expected in June which would decriminalize marijuana possession as part of a revamped National Drug Strategy.
Early indications were that Justice Minister Martin Cauchon would decriminalize the possession of 30 grams of pot, making it subject to fines. But now it seems more likely to be in the range of 10-20 grams.
The Senate report said an average of 20,000 Canadians a year are charged with possession and currently 600,000 of us have a criminal record for it.
When Marc-Boris St. Maurice spent 24 hours in jail in 1991 for smoking pot, it changed his life forever. He vowed to be an activist for the legalization of marijuana and he hasn't let himself down.
He created the Bloc Pot organization in 1997 and co-founded Canada's Marijuana Party in 2000, a week before he was arrested as a volunteer for the Club Compassion of Montreal.
You would think a man dedicated to marijuana freedom would be ecstatic the government is moving forward with decriminalization plans. You would be wrong.
"It still equates to prohibition," St. Maurice said. "It's an illusion, smoke and mirrors. It could set the movement back and steal our thunder because if it does go through, then where does that leave the pro-marijuana movement? The prohibitionists will be able to say, 'We already have decriminalization, what more do you want?' "
The Canadian marijuana movement has never been stronger. They have established a powerful network bankrolled with millions of dollars, tied together via the Internet.
"The movement across this country is vibrant," St. Maurice said. "I remember when there was nothing happening in Ontario just a few years ago and now its Million Marijuana March is the biggest in Canada.
"Don't mess with the potheads. I think we have benefitted from being underestimated for so long."
Doctors who are fighting to keep marijuana banned say the information emanating from lobby groups like Canada's Marijuana Party is dangerous.
"People don't perceive marijuana as harmful anymore and I think that's happened largely because of a powerful propaganda machine which has led to a general ignorance," said Dr. Raju Hajela, a past president of the Canadian Society of Addiction Medicine.
Hajela is at the forefront of the medical movement against marijuana, even for medicinal purposes. He was one of the first to claim publicly that one joint is as dangerous as 10 cigarettes.
"There is a real discrepancy between what scientific evidence has proven and what the public perception is," Hajela said.
"There is an allure that it is natural. People try it and they think there is nothing wrong with it. Even for people trying it for the first time, there are devastating consequences."
Hajela said the public, and even the media, have been seduced by the pro-marijuana marketing campaign.
"The media is not interested in the facts anymore," Hajela said. "There are a lot of marijuana smokers amongst the media. They don't like to look at something that would make themselves look in the mirror."
He said marijuana is of great concern because of 420-odd chemicals in the plant resulting in more than 2,000 substances unleashed upon lighting, many of which are toxic and carcinogenic, and made worse by the fact tokers generally inhale marijuana smoke deeper than tobacco.
According to scientific evidence Hajela cites, regular marijuana use can induce mental illness such as anxiety and panic disorders, dysthymia, major depressive, bipolar and delusional disorders and a paranoid schizophrenia.
But these illnesses aren't even part of the debate, rarely even in the medical world, Hajela acknowledged.
"Yes, tobacco is bad and yes, alcohol is dangerous but just because these things are legal doesn't mean marijuana should be legal. But the public isn't understanding that a lot of the time.
"On the public front, it doesn't look very optimistic that things will change and people will understand the dangers," Hajela said. "We are in an age of marketing and the pro-marijuana lobby has a lot of money devoted to this."
Police Chief Julian Fantino, unabashedly frustrated by the way governments and courts are treating marijuana, is determined to change public opinion. Once in favour of decriminalization, he is now having second thoughts.
"I have to tell you I was in favour provided there are very small amounts involved but having said that, I don't think we can be doing this without addressing the business end of marijuana - the organized crime - which is the real problem around the drug," Fantino said.
Police organizations maintain that 75% of the marijuana in Ontario is being grown by organized crime networks, most notably the Hells Angels and Vietnamese groups first rooted in B.C. in the late 1980s.
"The violence associated with these grow operations - the murders, the ripoffs, the electricity thefts - that's what's going on here," Fantino said. "If the government wants to blink and wink and turn its backs on organized crime and endanger the lives of ... law-abiding citizens, then they should just legalize it and get it over with and the police will be done with it."
For all the concern about Canada-U.S. relations regarding marijuana, consider this: The U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center estimates Canada produces 800 metric tons of pot annually while Mexico produces 10,000 metric tons.
U.S. officials said they were not overly concerned with a decriminalization policy in Canada but vowed to bump up border patrols if it happens.
"Canada is not talking about legalizing large indoor grows or stopping the arrests of criminal enterprises," said DEA spokesman Will Glaspy.
"Essentially that's where the (border) problems are. People wanting to smoke dope and get high is not a cross-border issue.
"But it (a decriminalization policy) is going to increase our security along the border because marijuana is a Schedule 1 illicit drug. If Canada changed its laws, it's not going to change things here in the U.S. and you'd have a lot of people wanting to get high who would be going to a border have look."
To add a wrinkle to the debate, the Canadian Supreme Court is scheduled next week to hear a charter challenge case involving three appellants that challenges the criminalization of marijuana possession.
Revered cannabis lawyer John Conroy will argue that his clients have a right to smoke pot.
"If the court concludes there is no harm to others even based on this challenge, then it could possibly strike down existing laws, there could be a domino affect, even for laws against selling it," Conroy said.
"We are trying to establish what our liberties are. In a free and democratic society, if you want to smoke pot, why should I care? It just wouldn't have an impact on others if it was taken off the black market."