Sunday, July 08, 2007

Canada: Pot policy creating too many criminals?

Globe & Mail
July 8, 2007

OTTAWA — The number of people arrested for smoking pot rose dramatically in several Canadian cities last year after the Conservatives took office and killed a bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.

The spike in arrests for simple possession of cannabis appears in data compiled by The Canadian Press from municipal police forces through interviews and Access to Information Act requests.

National statistics will only be released next week but preliminary figures suggest the number of arrests jumped by more than one-third in several Canadian cities.

Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa and Halifax all reported increases of between 20 and 50 per cent in 2006, while Montreal and Calgary saw their number of arrests dip a few percentage points from the previous year.

As a result thousands of people were charged with a criminal offence that just recently was within a whisker of extinction.

Every party in the House of Commons except the Conservatives supported a bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, but the Liberal government that sponsored it never brought it to a final vote.

Several police officials say the trend is linked directly to that legislation, which died as a result of the federal election on Jan. 23, 2006.

The head of one police association said many forces simply stopped laying charges after the Liberals first introduced a decriminalization bill under Jean Chr├ętien in 2003.

“There were several police jurisdictions not laying the simple ... possession charges,” said Terry McLaren, president of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police.

“Everybody was waiting for what was going to happen.... There'd be no use clogging up court system with that decriminalization bill there.

“'When that was defeated, I'd say it was business as usual.”

The number of people charged plunged from 26,882 in 2002 and remained relatively steady, below 19,000, for the three years that decriminalization was being debated in Parliament.

But police say many pot-smokers — especially younger ones — appear unaware that the bill never actually passed.

So even if marijuana consumption remains as illegal in Canada as it has been since 1923, police say some people are toking more boldly than they've ever toked before.

Which makes it far easier to arrest them.

“You'd have a youth smoking a joint out on the street without any fear of being caught,” said Toronto police Det. Doug McCutcheon.

“You go to any high school and do a quiz. Find out how many kids realize that it takes three readings (in the House of Commons), plus Senate approval, before something happens.”

The stillborn bill by the previous Liberal government would have made possession under 15 grams a non-criminal offence punishable by fines starting at $150.

Nearly half of Canadians have committed the crime spelled out in Section 4 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. It sets out a maximum six-month prison sentence and a $1,000 fine for anyone caught with 30 grams of marijuana or less.

Liberalization advocates say 600,000 Canadians unfairly carry a criminal record because of existing laws. They call the decision to scrap decriminalization wrong-headed.

“It seems to me that the clock is turning backwards here,” said New Democrat MP Libby Davies, a persistent critic of current laws.

“'They may charge more people — but they're not deterring youth, they're not putting in funds for education or prevention.

“The (Tories) have a very regressive policy that's in line with what the U.S. is doing in its so-called war on drugs — which is a total failure.”

If this is a war on marijuana, the public is getting mixed messages about the declared enemy.

The reality is that about only half the people arrested for simple possession even get charged, and the vast majority of those who are charged for pot possession alone never do any time.

In some cases people are handcuffed, brought to jail, and strip-searched by police after being stopped. In other cases they just get told to toss away their joint, or get served papers ordering them to appear in court.

That erratic application only serves to infuriate critics of the status quo.

Several pot-smokers interviewed for this story shared anecdotes that illustrate how inconsistently the law is applied.

One pot activist has been arrested at least seven times, been strip-searched, forced to ride in a police van with more violent criminals, and was once stopped for carrying just enough weed to roll a tiny joint.

Marc-Boris St-Maurice compares that with the last time he was stopped by police, just a few weeks ago on a trendy Montreal boulevard.

The former leader and founder of the federal Marijuana party tossed away his joint on the sidewalk and ended up chatting casually with two officers about politics.

One Montreal cop who asked not to be identified said some officers can spend an entire career on the force without ever arresting any of the people they catch smoking a joint.

“I'd rather stop someone breaking into a house or stealing a car,” he said.

He said some officers might lay charges in conjunction with an unrelated offence to increase the likelihood of a criminal conviction — for instance, if they detect pot during a domestic-abuse investigation.

Chief McLaren agrees that most possession arrests occur when officers are investigating another incident. He estimates that seven out of 10 pot busts stem from things as diverse as busted brake lights, break-and-enters, or traffic stops.

A 2002 Senate report expressed alarm that the law is not applied equally to all Canadian citizens.

While pot-smokers are regularly prosecuted in some parts of the country, the RCMP detachment in Richmond, B.C., told the Senate that only 5 per cent of cases resulted in charges there.

The Senate committee — led by then-Progressive Conservative Sen. Pierre-Claude Nolin — proposed going even farther than the Liberals did, suggesting the legalization of marijuana.

A 1972 royal commission headed by Gerald Le Dain also recommended liberalizing marijuana laws but its suggestions were immediately rejected by the government.

The Nolin committee cited 1996 figures that pegged the annual cost of policing and prosecuting drug offences at $400-million, but suggested in its final report that the actual number could be more than double that.

One police drug-policy expert said the cost to society of substance abuse is far greater. He said years of decriminalization talk has sent mixed messages.

Barry McKnight expressed hope that the Conservatives' coming $64-million National Anti-Drug Strategy, promised in the last federal budget, will drive home one simple point.

“I'm hoping for a clear message: ... that drugs are bad,” said Mr. McKnight, a drug-policy expert with the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.

“Marijuana is a harmful drug. It's as simple as that — no ifs, ands, or buts. Period, end of sentence.”

The Nolin committee reported that excessive marijuana use can cause chronic bronchitis, create psychological problems, and affect learning. It also noted a higher concentration of some cancer-causing carcinogens in marijuana than in cigarettes.

But the report also called pot less addictive than either alcohol or cigarettes.

One criminology professor and drug-policy expert points out that alcohol consumption and cigarette-smoking rates have plummeted since the 1970s, while pot use has risen.

Tighter controls and public awareness of the dangers associated with booze and cigarettes have succeeded where prohibition failed, said Eugene Oscapella, a lawyer and criminology professor at the University of Ottawa.

“Going into the 21st century we should know better than to bludgeon the use of this drug with criminal law,” he said.

“It doesn't work, hasn't worked, never has worked, there's no prospect that it ever will work. Yet we continue to do it.”

The Senate committee also questioned the popular wisdom that marijuana is a so-called gateway drug that leads people to more dangerous substances.

Philippe Lucas, an addiction researcher at the University of Victoria, says marijuana is more of a buffer than a gateway.

He describes marijuana as a lesser evil that helps reduce the use of hard drugs, cuts into drinking and therefore prevents alcohol-related injuries. Prof. Lucas works at the local Compassion Club which supplies medical marijuana, and says many visitors believe pot keeps them out of worse trouble.

“People don't view it as a gateway drug. They view it as an exit drug,” he said.

“They use cannabis to stay away from more dangerous substances. They use it because they've just quit heroin, they use it because they want to stay away from crystal meth and alcohol.”

But Prof. Oscapella says the status quo is still not justified by the traditional view — that marijuana is just plain bad.

“Prohibition has been an utter and total failure,” he said.

“Not only has it failed to do anything, it has actually made the problem worse. It's not like some government programs that fail to do anything at all — this one does actual harm.

“Instead of just keeping us static and wasting money, it actually moves us backwards. And wastes money. And destroys lives. And finances terrorism, and insurgent groups around the world.”