Pubdate: Thu, 04 Sep 2003
Source: Rolling Stone (US)
Section: National Affairs, page 79
Copyright: 2003 Straight Arrow Publishers Company, L.P.
Author: Stephen Glass
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Canada)


North of the Border, Marijuana Policy Is Changing Radically. and The
White House Is Not Happy

In November 2001, when Alain Berthiaume - Montreal's most prominent
marijuana activist - was arrested on drug charges, the best advice
might have been to plead guilty. Berthiaume, who owns a head shop, a
grow shop, a seed band and a pot-culture magazine, was caught
organizing his third annual Cannabis Cup - a public competition for
marijuana growers. Several months later, the police raided his home
and found 1,2000 cannabis plants - what Berthiaume calls his "small

But Berthiaume thought he shouldn't have to go to prison. "I've been
smoking all my life," he says. "I no longer want to be treated as a
failure, a drug addict, a fucking thief."

So when the prosecutor offered him a plea deal with only one year of
jail time, he refused it.

And Berthiaume might just win.

In the past few months, a storm of legal reforms in Canada has made it
likely that marijuana will be decriminalized before the year is out.
By then, Parliament is expected to have passed a bill that will make
the possession of small amounts of marijuana merely a ticketable
offense, much like speeding. Meanwhile, this past spring, an Ontario
court voided the country's possession law on technical grounds,
meaning that in the province at least, there is currently no law
against possessing small amounts of marijuana. And this fall, the
Canadian Supreme Court will determine whether the country's laws
prohibiting marijuana possession are unconstitutional and therefore
must be struck down altogether.

Predictably, these reforms have the Bush administration steaming. Asa
Hutchinson, a senior official in the Department of Homeland Security,
warned Canadian journalists that their country would face
"consequences" it passed decriminalization.

The U.S. "would have to respond" to a change in Canada's drug laws,
David Murray, a top member of the Office of National Drug Control
Policy, told reporters in Vancouver. "This isn't Woodstock."

And John Walters, the drug czar himself, hinted in an interview with
the Boston Globe that the northern border of the U.S. may have to be
restricted, maybe even semimilitarized, like the border with Mexico.
That's a significant threat to the Canadian economy, which relies
heavily on fluid trade with the U.S.

But for all its bravado, the Bush administration has Canada's
marijuana laws all wrong. The Canadians don't see the proposed new law
as a step towards legalization; officials there see it as a soft and
sensible way to crack down on drug use. Adults caught with fifteen
grams or less (about half an ounce) would be fined $150 (U.S. $107);
minors would own $100 (U.S. $71) and a letter would be sent to their
parents. That would be the extent of it. No handcuffs, no mug shot, no
overnight in lockup, no court appearance. Moreover, as with parking
violations there would no cumulative punishments - as long as you paid
your tickets, you could rack up an infinite number of infractions
without fear of additional or harsher penalties.

In larger cases, when an individual is caught with between fifteen and
thirty grams, police would have the discretion to issue a ticket (with
double the fines) or file criminal charges, carrying the old penalties
- - up to six months in jail.

Unlike in the U.S., where pot prosecutions have skyrocketed during the
past few years - more than 640,000 people were arrested for possession
in 2001, nearly double the number arrested for all marijuana offenses
in 1992 - Canada's judicial system only rarely enforces its own pot

In 1999, Canadian police charged only about 21,000 people with
cannabis possession. And that's only about half the number of times
law enforcement reported an "incident" of cannabis possession. In
other words, police looked the other way just as often as they
arrested people.

Richmond, British Columbia - a city whose prosecutions were examined
by a government commission - is a good example. In 2001, the Royal
Canadian Mounted Police found individuals in possession of marijuana
605 times. But they charged only thirty people.

In short, Dudley Do-Right isn't doing much. And the country's leaders
are realistic about it. "We don't believe that charging [and]
prosecuting some 25,000 people a year really sends a message about the
harmful effects of marijuana," says Richard Mosley, a senior official
in Canada's Department of Justice. A Canadian Senate committee came to
the same conclusion last year, noting that "any deterrent effect [the
current law] may have [is] seriously in doubt."

Instead, the Department of Justice expects that when the penalty is
reduced to a mere fine, nabbing offenders will be more efficient, and
in turn a far greater number of Canadians will be pinched for pot.
Criminologists call this phenomenon the "net-widening effect."

"[This reform] is not in any way an endorsement of a relaxed approach
to the possession and use of cannabis," Mosley says. "The level of
enforcement will go up."

Moreover, the bill, if anything, ought to lessen the flow of pot from
Canada to the U.S., not increase it - making the Bush administration's
concerns even more off the mark.

The proposed law will double the penalties - from seven to fourteen
years - for large-scale growers: those with fifty plants or more, who
presumably cultivate much of the pot that is shipped south. At the
same time, it leaves untouched the current draconian penalties for
trafficking or exporting drugs - offenses that still allow life

In sharp counterpoint to the U.S., Canada simply lacks any strong
voice in favor of strict enforcement of criminal penalties for
marijuana use. Last September, Canada's Senate Special Committee on
Illegal Drugs issued an exhaustive 600-page-plus report that examined
every aspect of the country's marijuana laws and concluded that
legalization was the necessary reform.

Instead, some lawmakers even seem to find the whole subject amusing,
treating it with a casual offhandedness unthinkable for their U.S.
counterparts. When asked by reporters whether he had ever smoked
marijuana, Minister of Justice Martin Cauchon said, "I'm thirty-nine
years old.... Yes, of course I tried it before, obviously." And when
the bill got delayed at one point, Canada's Prime Minister Jean
Chretien told reporters, "It's coming, it's coming. Relax. You don't
have to smoke it to relax."

Even Dan McTeague, one of the bill's leading, and most thoughtful,
opponents, was careful to say, "I don't believe you throw people in
jail because they smoked marijuana. That's absurd." Instead, McTeague
says he will oppose the bill because he's concerned about the health
consequences for marijuana users and the public-safety risks of
widespread pot use.

Ironically, it's the pot activists who seem most upset about the
upcoming changes in the law, seeing them as a rear-guard attempt to
recriminalize pot possession after it had already been decriminalized
in practice (though not in law). All across the country, smokers and
growers have been ignoring pot laws during the past few years, banking
on the fact that even if they got arrested, nothing would happen. Pot
is openly smoked in coffee shops in Vancouver and even in smaller,
provincial cities such as Saint John, New Brunswick.

"It's all cosmetic," says Marc-Boris St.-Maurice, the leader of the
federal Marijuana Party, who has been arrested several times on pot
charges. "The day the government realizes there's money to be made
writing tickets for potheads, we're going to increase the amount of
potheads being targeted."

At Crosstown Traffic, an Ottawa head shop, many of the clients said
they, too, were worried about the ticketing scheme. One customer,
Oliver Greer, a smart, confident, and at times very funny
nineteen-year-old, is particularly concerned about how much the new
law sill cost him. Greer says he smokes between fifteen and twenty
joints a day.

"If you get caught smoking a joint by a cop, he's just going to take
it and throw it away," Greer says. But when the ticketing system kicks
in, he predicts, "For people who smoke lots and lots of weed, the
fucking tickets are going to add up, you know what I mean?"

Pot has reached so deeply into Canadian daily life that Canada could
very well become the most stoned country on earth. According to Alain
Berthiaume, even small towns - some with as few as 15,000 people -
have grow shops.

In Saint John, a small costal city ninety minutes from the Maine
border, Jim Wood recently added a pot-friendly coffee bar to Hemp
N.B., the head shop that he and his wife, Lynn, own. But later this
month, the couple says they will become the very first to take the
final, most controversial step for Canada's marijuana movement: They
will begin openly selling pot to the public over the counter. Even
Berthiaume - despite his many marijuana ventures - never actually
deals, but the Woods intend to do some, and to do it

"What we want," says Jim Wood, "is Americans coming up here, spending
their U.S. dollars on our pot."

Wood believes he has the right to sell pot thanks to a loophole in
Canada's medical-marijuana laws: The cafe at Hemp N.B. will sell pot
to anyone who presents a photocopy of any doctor's diagnosis. While
Hemp N.B. will check to ensure the diagnosis comes from a legitimate
doctor, a customer's doctor's note can say anything. It need not
prescribe marijuana, Wood stresses. It doesn't even need to be
evidence of an illness that's normally thought to be treatable with
marijuana. "Dandruff would work," says Wood. "If you felt that eating
or smoking pot - or maybe even rubbing it in your hair - would help,
you're more than free to do so, as far as I'm concerned."

Wood says that he and his wife designed the coffee shop at Hemp N.B.
to resemble a well-worn 1970s living room, with an overabundance of
houseplants, checkers and cribbage sets, and comfortable seats. Adults
over nineteen, he says, may never smoke their own pot as long as they
buy a cup of coffee. Tobacco smokers, thought, must take their
cigarettes outside. In May, a few weeks after the cafe opened, police
officers hauled off five pot smokers. But when they appeared in court,
an officer told them to go home. Charges still haven't been filed,
presumably because of the current flux in the law. (In Nova Scotia and
Prince Edward Island, to other eastern Canadian provinces, the courts
have suspended all marijuana prosecutions.)

Now, business is booming. Wood says he's getting about seventy-five
customers a day; and, increasingly, Americans making port calls on
North Atlantic cruse ships are stopping by - just as he'd hoped.

Wood seems to be anticipating a future free of marijuana laws, or at
least of their enforcement - and so, in his own way, is Berthiaume.
Ten years from now, Berthiaume says, he's "positive, positive,
positive" that there won't be trials like his anymore in Canada.

For now, though, he is awaiting sentencing. Based on the judge's
reactions from the bench, Berthiaume expects to receive six months to
a year in prison, or maybe house arrest. But he vows that the legal
hassles won't cause him to cancel his Cannabis Cup for the second
straight year. "We're going to do it again, man," he assured me. "We
cannot let that go, man." 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake