Legalize Vs Prosecute: With So Many Canadians Smoking And Growing It, Is A
Canadians will today consume roughly 2,100 kilograms of marijuana -- enough
to fill more than 150 large cardboard boxes. By the end of the year, three
million of us, according to a recent study by the Senate, will have smoked,
eaten or otherwise inhaled almost 770,000 kilograms of the stuff --
impressive numbers considering that marijuana use is a federal crime.
It is also a crime to cultivate the weed. Yet, police and industry insiders
estimate about 215,000 growers across the country produce more than 2.6
million kilograms of cannabis each year. In British Columbia alone, the
pot-growing industry is believed to generate up to $6 billion in annual
sales, making it one of the West Coast's biggest industries after forestry
With so many Canadians smoking and growing marijuana, questions are being
asked about why the federal government maintains its prohibition against
the drug, and how, if the prohibition is sound public policy, police can
ever be expected to properly enforce the law.
"Why doesn't the government stop dragging its feet and implement a fully
legal regulatory regime for marijuana for everybody?" says Jody Pressman, a
marijuana advocate in Ottawa.
Says Dana Larsen, editor of Vancouver-based Cannabis Culture Magazine,
which sells 85,000 copies every month in Canada and the U.S: "Under a fully
legalized system people could grow marijuana commercially and sell it in
stores licensed by the government. It could be subject to health controls,
quality controls and taxes. It wouldn't have to be more expensive than any
other fruit or vegetable."
Such views are no longer the sole property of the political fringe. Two
years ago, the Senate's special committee on illegal drugs interviewed
2,000 witnesses as part of the most exhaustive Canadian study into
marijuana in 30 years. The committee's 2002 report urged Ottawa to end its
81-year-old prohibition by implementing a system to regulate the
production, distribution and consumption of marijuana -- the same as
governments do with alcohol.
"If the aim of [existing] public policy is to diminish consumption and
supply of drugs, specifically cannabis, all signs indicate complete
failure," the report said. "Billions of dollars have been sunk into
enforcement without any great effect."
The Liberal government, however, is taking another route, choosing to
simply decriminalize small-time pot usage and to toughen the law against
commercial growers and dealers.
Bill C-10, introduced in the House of Commons last month, would make the
possession of up to 15 grams of pot and up to three marijuana plants no
more serious than driving over the speed limit, punishable by tickets and
fines of between $100-$500.
The bill also increases the fines and jail terms for people caught
trafficking or growing larger amounts of pot in an apparent bid to deter
organized crime groups, whose entry into the industry in recent years has
resulted in the proliferation of massive commercial grow operations
throughout the country.
Yet, the proposed law isn't making anyone happy. Recreational smokers
predict it will push up the demand and, therefore, the price of marijuana,
making it a more attractive cash crop for organized crime.
People who use the drug for medicinal reasons complain the government
should be finding ways to ensure them an effective and legal supply of
marijuana instead of fiddling around with changes to the Criminal Code.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving says the bill will lead to more drug-induced
traffic accidents, because police have no scientific way to measure how
much marijuana impaired motorists might have been smoking.
"Police have no power to get drivers operating under the influence of
marijuana off the roads," adds Gwendolyn Landolt, vice-president of REAL
Women of Canada. "The message this gives Canadian youth is 'Don't drink and
drive, just toke and drive.'"
Police organizations, meanwhile, argue that removing their discretionary
power to arrest even small-scale marijuana users and growers will hamper
efforts to fight the wider drug war.
"It's one thing to have 15 grams in your house, but should it be
permissible to have 15 grams on the street, where someone could be pushing
those drugs to kids?" says Kevin McAlpine, chief of the Durham Regional
Police force and co-chair of the organized crime committee for the Ontario
Association of Chiefs of Police. "That's the fine detail we're concerned
RCMP Chief Superintendent Raf Souccar, director-general of the Mounties'
drugs and organized crime section, says American officials have privately
told him they are "extremely upset" by the decriminalization proposals.
As for the Senate, its 2002 report called decriminalization the "worst case
scenario" because it would deprive the government of its ability to
regulate and control a drug that decades of lawmaking has failed to suppress.
Even Bill C-10's own legislative summary warns that tougher marijuana laws
could have the opposite intended effect on organized crime.
"Ironically, one of the possible consequences of heavier penalties may be
to tighten the grip of organized crime on production," the summary says.
"It is doubtful that members of criminal organizations would be concerned
about heavier penalties."
The Senate reported that Canada's courts and police now spend up to $500
million every year trying to enforce the marijuana laws, particularly
against the indoor growing operations owned by biker gangs, Asian
syndicates and other organized crime groups.
The scope of this phenomenon became apparent earlier this year when police
in Barrie, Ont., busted a massive cultivation operation, with 25,000 cloned
marijuana plants growing under rows of lights, inside a former Molson
brewery on the side of one of Canada's busiest highways.
Police say the number of large, commercial growing operations has almost
tripled over the last five years in Ontario alone.
Many such operations exist inside modern homes in suburban neighbourhoods.
The houses are gutted and refitted for the sole purpose of cultivating pot.
Indoor operations have been made possible by hydroponic technology and by a
1980s invention called the full-spectrum halide light, which utilizes huge
quantities of electricity but allows pot growers to cultivate a mature
plant in eight weeks. Electricity for the indoor lights is stolen from the
local power company by experts who secretly re-wire the home's connection
to the power grid in a way that escapes metering. Caretakers are then hired
to watch over the operation, often without knowing who, or which crime
gang, they're working for.
Police say at least 70 per cent of Canada's 2.6 million kilograms of
cannabis output gets sold in the U.S., much of it smuggled across the
border by crime gangs in exchange for guns, ecstasy and cocaine. It's
America's insatiable appetite for marijuana and the easy money it promises
that has lured organized crime into the marijuana racket in recent years.
Marc Emery, an activist who broadcasts Internet-based marijuana programming
out of his "Pot-TV" offices in Vancouver, says the traditional cannabis
community isn't inherently profit-focused or prone to violence; he says
these are the unwelcome characteristics organized criminals are bringing to
Police in Ontario have launched a campaign to smoke out gang-operated
growing operations with a co-ordinated effort from hydro companies, banks,
insurance and real estate firms. All of these unwittingly provide service
to grow-ops in some way, and could help police stop new marijuana
operations from moving into homes and other properties around the province.
Colin Kenny, the Tory senator who co-chaired the Senate's 2002 drugs
committee, says such enforcement efforts are doomed to failure.
Consider, he says, the parallels between today's expanding problem and the
crime-plagued U.S. prohibition on booze in the 1920s.
"We all know why Al Capone flourished," says Kenny. "It's because the
government prohibited something the public was interested in. When there's
a public demand for something and you make it illegal, that only makes it
more valuable. And when you drive up the price you are going to have
criminals moving in to exploit it.
"The only way to deal with big gro-ops is legalization."
Adds Larsen of Cannabis Culture Magazine, "These big-time grow-ops will
continue to proliferate until marijuana is legalized. The police will keep
busting them, not because they're getting better at it, but because
there'll be more and more."
Biker gangs and Asian crime networks aren't the only people growing
marijuana. It is also cultivated in every province and territory by people
with small and medium-sized operations, many of them ordinary folk with
legitimate day jobs and families. Emery estimates Canadian growers own an
average of 4.5 lights each, producing half-a-kilogram of pot on average
every two months.
Pot-growing is now as popular and as sophisticated a public pastime as the
home-renovation craze, except that it doesn't manifest itself in big-box
Home Depot stores. Instead, marijuana magazines and the Internet are filled
with how-to, home growing guides and advice. There are CD-ROMs with
pot-growing garden tips, and online seed banks.
Emery, arguably the world's largest marijuana seed seller, hawks more than
500 varieties of mail-order seed -- from "Malawi Gold" to "Afghan Dream" to
"Nepalese Grizzly" -- out of the pages of Cannabis Culture Magazine, which
he publishes. He even markets a brand called "Ben Johnson -- good solid
buds and a full, pungent smoke."
Seed sales, marijuana magazine publishing, and increasingly small-time pot
smoking fit into a grey area of the law, in which no one seems to be
certain of what's illegal and what's not. Cannabis Culture Magazine is
widely sold on newsstands, yet the magazines are occasionally confiscated
One commercial pot grower on the East Coast who identifies himself as
"Jake" is a buttoned-down, 48-year-old owner of a legal manufacturing
business with 15 employees. When he's not running his company, he's
secretly growing outdoor cannabis crops, with the help of a handful of
workers, on dozens of hectares of Crown-owned and private logging land in
the wilds of the Maritimes. He says two-thirds of his own income comes from
"People would be staggered if they knew how many doctors, dentists,
accountants and even judges smoke pot," says Jake, who vows he'd sell his
legitimate business in a heartbeat, and turn full time to growing marijuana
-- happily paying taxes on his product -- if only Ottawa would legalize the
He says legalization and government regulation of the distribution and
consumption networks would force crime gangs out of the marijuana game, and
allow producers like himself to cultivate and sell their crops without
skulking around in secrecy.
"It makes no sense to me," he says. "I can legally marry a man in Canada
today. But I can't smoke a joint."
Alan Young, the Toronto law professor who has crusaded for years in the
courts for legal access to marijuana, particularly for medicinal users,
says there are probably more pot smokers in Canada than gay people, but
gays have had more success moving their agenda forward -- on issues such as
same-sex marriage -- because the gay movement is well organized and well
Until marijuana activists get their act together, he says, they're unlikely
to change the system.
"There are probably a dozen activist marijuana groups in the country but
they've never been able to work together," says Young. "The current
activists don't have a voice because they are penniless and they are not
leaders in the community. I have had occasion to indulge in this habit with
leaders of business, police and the judiciary. Until some of these people
come forward, this movement won't have real political influence in this
Canada's police chiefs are vocal, well respected and well organized
opponents of legalizing marijuana.
"We are morally bound to fight this fight," argues Durham Regional Police
Chief Kevin McAlpine, who also co-chairs the organized crime committee of
the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police.
McAlpine says he isn't convinced by the fact that cannabis use, although
widespread, is far less of a drain on the public health system than the
effects of alcohol or tobacco.
The Senate reported in 2002 that the social and economic costs of cannabis
use are "minimal -- no deaths, few hospitalizations and little loss of
No matter, says McAlpine. "It's our view that marijuana is not harmless. As
for the legalization issue, I haven't yet heard anybody telling me how our
American friends would react or how we'd stop the flow of Canadian
marijuana across the border. Legalization is just not a mature debate at
RCMP Chief Supt. Raf Souccar says he doesn't know if the marijuana war can
be won, but he is certain it should continue.
"This talk about legalization is very cynical," he says. "What are we going
to legalize next -- break and enters, rapes and murders? We can't give up,
we have to fight smarter, and harder."
Cannabis Culture's Dana Larsen says throughout history Canada has showed
the U.S. how to liberalize its society. He predicts it will do so again
"Canada has always led America toward greater social liberties. We led them
on ending slavery, we led them on ending the prohibition on alcohol, and
we'll lead them towards ending the prohibition on marijuana. I'm sure I'll
see it in my lifetime."
- - -
MARIJUANA IN CANADA
Number of marijuana users: 2.3 million
Annual marijuana consumption: 770,000 kilograms
Annual marijuana production: 2.6 million kilograms
Amount of domestic production consumed in Canada: 30 per cent
Number of growing operations (personal use and commercial): 215,000
Number of people employed in marijuana growing: 500,000
Price of an ounce (29 grams) of top-grade, AAA marijuana, the equivalent of
20-50 joints: $250
Annual number of reported arrests for offences covering all illegal drugs:
Number of reported marijuana offences in 1999: 35,000
Number of reported marijuana offences in 2001 (70 per cent possession, 16
per cent trafficking, 13 per cent cultivation, one per cent importation):
Percentage of population (ages 12-64) that has used marijuana at least once: 30
Number of youths aged 12-17 who use it daily: 225,000
Average age of introduction to marijuana: 15
Percentage of regular marijuana users at risk of developing dependency:
5-10 per cent
Substance abuse costs associated with all illegal drugs: $1.4 billion.
Of alcohol: $7.5 billion
Of tobacco: $9.6 billion
Annual cost of enforcing the marijuana laws for courts and police: $500 million
Sources: 2002 Report of the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs;
Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse; Marijuana Party of Canada; Marc Emery,
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