Pubdate: Thu, 01 May 2014
Source: Walrus, The (Canada)
Copyright: 2014 The Walrus Magazine, Inc.
Author: Dan Werb


What Legal Pot in the US Means for BC Drug Gangs

IT'S OFFICIAL: British Columbia, once North America's pre-eminent 
destination for weed, now runs a distant third. This spring, the 
government of Washington state (hot on Colorado's heels) achieved the 
impossible, becoming in essence a purveyor of recreational marijuana. 
Just over a year after regulation was voted in, the policy apparatus 
is finally in place for buyers of age to choose from a variety of 
retailers, strains, and products, with restrictions limited to public 
consumption and driving under the influence. While some British 
Columbians may feel the sting of being replaced, they can take 
consolation in knowing that Washington's legalization of cannabis was 
partly motivated by a homegrown issue in BC: its legion of drug gangs.

According to an RCMP internal briefing note, over 130 organized crime 
groups operate in the province, including the Hells Angels, the UN 
Gang, and the Red Scorpions, all fighting for a stake in the 
marijuana industry, estimated at $7 billion a year (more than BC's 
forestry and fisheries sectors combined). But they are also central 
to a vigorous cross-border trade that sees BC Bud flowing south in 
exchange for Latin American cocaine, heroin, and illegal guns. Their 
presence has become so conspicuous that one former US federal 
prosecutor recently named them "the dominant organized crime threat 
in the Northwest."

Alison Holcomb, a former criminal defence attorney, now with the 
American Civil Liberties Union, has had a front-row seat from which 
to observe how BC's organized crime groups operate in her home state, 
particularly since the United States tightened its borders in the 
wake of 9/11. "I've represented clients who came from Canada and 
rented suburban homes, turning them into giant indoor grow farms," 
she says. By parachuting personnel directly into the States to set up 
grow ops, she explains, Canadian marijuana traffickers can minimize 
the risk of seizure, and cut shipping costs in the bargain. Of 
course, this criminal expansion has not gone so smoothly, considering 
the violence and arrests that followed.

Holcomb, who led the team that drafted Washington's cannabis 
legislation, claims that concerns over the presence of drug gangs, 
and Canadian gangs in particular, was a key reason voters supported 
legalization in the state. "They put two and two together and 
realized that gang members were the ones in control of the market," 
she says, "just like when we handed alcohol to criminal organizations 
during Prohibition." By regulating cannabis, she and her allies 
argued, the state could deal the illegal market a crippling blow 
without anyone firing a shot. "We expect much of the consumer base 
here to start patronizing stores where shopkeepers have acquired 
licences," she explains, while the growers, rather than toting guns, 
"will be paying taxes to their communities and being good neighbours."

Martin Bouchard, a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser 
University in Burnaby, BC, is more cautious in his projections. 
"Washington state, after all, is only part of the route," he says. 
"You go through it, but you don't necessarily reach your destination 
there." One can find BC Bud competing with such products as Quebec 
Gold as far away as New York state, which speaks to the brand's 
incredible strength.

"I suspect there will be a taste for BC Bud in Washington state until 
the legal market can offer a variety of high-quality cannabis types," 
says Bouchard. Like Holcomb, he turns to alcohol for an analogy: 
"What if my local grocery store only offers Bud Light, and all of my 
friends drink it, so that's all I know. Then suddenly I discover a 
store with craft beers. Maybe I'll eventually realize that Bud Light 
isn't my favourite beer, but only after a long process of trial and error."

"Washington growers have a very high opinion of their product's 
quality," Holcomb counters. "I think if you asked, they would assure 
you that they will be able to satisfy customers here." However, there 
may yet be opportunities for BC growers to contribute in a more 
consultative capacity. "If there are Canadian citizens who would like 
to participate legally in our market until Canada regulates 
marijuana," she says pointedly, "I'm sure there are people here who 
would appreciate their expertise."

Regardless of how legalization plays out in Washington, there is no 
doubt about its effect on a long-held, if tacit, understanding 
between the US and Canada. In 2011, Prime Minister Stephen Harper 
darkly hinted to reporters that regulating marijuana in Canada would 
have repercussions for cross-border trade. "I don't want to say they 
would seal the border," he mused, "but I think it would inhibit our 
trade generally, because they're certainly not going to make that 
move." A short while later, when pressed to justify "tough on crime" 
drug policies in the lead-up to Washington's legalization, he 
surprised everyone by saying, "I think what everybody believes and 
agrees with is that the current approach is not working." Since then, 
the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police has voted in favour of 
legislation that would allow officers to issue tickets for pot use 
(like those for jaywalking), rather than charging them with a crime, 
a proposal Justice Minister Peter M! acKay is taking seriously.

It may not be "swords into ploughshares" time in this country just 
yet, but regulation is starting to seem inevitable. When it comes, it 
may take another bite out of organized crime here and in the US, with 
whom we are so inextricably linked in this problem. A united front 
stands the best chance of realizing Holcomb's beautifully simple 
solution to a massive drug trade that has indeed run circles around 
law enforcement for decades.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom