Pubdate: Sun, 08 Jul 2007
Source: Chronicle-Journal, The (CN ON)
Copyright: 2007 The Chronicle-Journal
Author: Alexander Panetta
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal - Canada)


OTTAWA (CP) - 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

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 Chretien 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

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

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

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

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 five 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

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
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

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. 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 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

"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."
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MAP posted-by: Steve Heath