Change is in the wind for the decriminalization of marijuana possession
Liberal MP Keith Martin, who introduced a private member's bill this week, rightly maintains that 'the war on drugs has been a complete failure'
If Vancouver has the equivalent of a public square, it's the fountain outside the old Vancouver Art Gallery downtown, where last week, I smelled an unmistakable aroma coming from the vicinity of two young men rolling white filter papers.
Pot. Right out there in the open -- in full view of, well, everybody.
I shouldn't have been taken aback; this same smell can be picked up in any Vancouver park or on a corner any day of the week. It once surprised me when I moved west 20 years ago. These days I'm accustomed to it.
But isn't possessing and using marijuana a criminal offence?
It is. But if a law is universally ignored, it becomes tough to enforce. It inevitably grows to be disdained, scoffed at by the community.
Enter Keith Martin, a free-thinking Liberal MP from Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, health promotion critic for his party.
This week he introduced private member's Bill C-359, to decriminalize marijuana possession. It would still be illegal, but those with up to two pot plants would receive modest fines rather than being routed through the justice system at great expense and, if convicted, left with criminal records.
Ottawa spends about $450 million a year enforcing Canada's drug laws. Half of all offences are for cannabis possession.
Tens of thousands of Canadians are charged annually with possession, and 1.5 million citizens are carrying criminal records for this offence. Imagine, if Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Stockwell Day or Dalton McGuinty had been convicted for using pot as teens, today they'd have criminal records.
Martin's rationale is that decriminalization would "sever the connection between organized crime and casual users."
The MP, a physician who worked in detox and drug rehab centres for 14 years, explains his bill would be "bad news for criminal gangs, which are the only beneficiaries of the status quo because it would eliminate demand for their product."
Of course, gangsters would still enjoy a thriving market for peddling cocaine, crystal meth and heroin.
But decriminalization for possession is not about to happen because private member's bills such as Martin's almost always die on the parliamentary order paper. And with a law-and-order Conservative government at the helm, the pot bill is sure to go nowhere.
Too bad. Martin speaks the truth when he remarks: "The war on drugs has been a complete failure. It has not reduced the crime rate, drug use, nor has it saved money or lives."
As a taxpayer, I'm prepared to take a lesson from the 1920s: Prohibition does not work.
I would want to find ways to regulate and tax drug suppliers who currently are running rampant, making personal fortunes, bullet-proofing their fancy cars and killing people all over the place.
Martin's bill would reflect a modest first step in a much needed paradigm shift on drug enforcement. It's not a new idea either. He has introduced similar, unsuccessful bills in the past.
Back in 2001, former Progressive Conservative prime minister Joe Clark expressed support for decriminalizing possession of small amounts of pot. The Canadian Medical Association Journal in the past has called on Ottawa to decriminalize possession of small amounts for personal use.
In 2002, then-Liberal justice minister Martin Cauchon promised the Chretien-led government would introduce legislation to decriminalize marijuana. But it never happened.
Clearly it's a worthy idea, just waiting to happen.
By Barbara Yaffe
April 7, 2009