Pubdate: Sat, 09 Jan 2016
Source: Toronto Star (CN ON)
Copyright: 2016 The Toronto Star
Author: Betsy Powell
Page: A4


Critics Question Whether Former Police Chief Bill Blair Is Best Man for the Job

Liberal MP Bill Blair's appointment as the government's new pot czar 
is raising the eyebrows of critics who question whether Toronto's 
former police chief is the best person to oversee the sensitive file.

On Friday, it was confirmed he has been picked to lead the 
government's effort to implement the Liberal campaign promise to 
legalize marijuana.

"The problem is the government has said they want to characterize 
marijuana as a health issue, so it's a bit strange and awkward to go 
to someone who only knows the law enforcement perspective," said Alan 
Young, a York University law professor and leading marijuana law reformer.

It also creates some "weird" optics, Young suggests.

"How do you spend your lifetime trying to suppress something and open 
your mind trying to liberalize it? There's a bit of a disconnect.' "

During Blair's decade as Toronto's top cop, the number of marijuana 
related arrests rose steadily from 1,837 in 2005, the year he became 
chief, to 5,610 in the first 10 months of 2013, the last year 
statistics are available from the Toronto Police Service. He retired 
from the force in April 2015 before winning his riding in last year's 
federal election.

But it wasn't only Toronto that saw a steep rise in pot arrests 
during that time. Statistics Canada reports there was also a 
40-per-cent jump in pot possession arrests across the country, 
saddling thousands of Canadians with criminal records for an offence 
soon to be legal.

The person behind this is former prime minister Stephen Harper, not 
Blair, says defence lawyer John Struthers. Blair took over the 
chief's job in April 2005.

Months later, Harper's tough-on-crime Conservative party was elected 
and ramped up a war on drugs. "He (Blair) didn't make the federal law 
nor did he take direction about how to enforce it. He was in the 
position where he had to enforce the law as it was whether he likes 
it or not," Struthers said Friday. "Perhaps he ran for Parliament so 
he could become the lawmaker."

Blair also became chief at a time when the city saw a record number 
of gun slayings - and while gang-related crime was also on the rise. 
Political leaders and the public demanded action.

In 2004, with Blair in the senior command, Toronto police began using 
a relatively new anti-gang law to conduct a series of raids to rid 
impoverished neighbourhoods of gun-toting gangsters.

These hugely expensive anti-gang projects quelled violence in the 
targeted areas. But the sweeps were also criticized for rounding up 
too many innocent people or those guilty of nothing more than having 
a few joints. Many charges were tossed out by the courts.

It was also a time when the force expanded the use of carding, or 
street checks, assailed by defence lawyers and others for leading to 
a racialized discrepancy of who got arrested and prosecuted for possessing pot.

Jeff Hershberg, another defence lawyer, says he has been involved in 
cases where Toronto police officers violated his clients' rights by 
using the smell of marijuana to conduct illegal searches.

He finds it "ironic" Blair is now in charge of legalizing pot, though 
perhaps "he is simply the face of the reform," he wrote in an email.

"Either way, I expect he will have lots of help from more experienced 
individuals seeing as how he is a new MP with little or no experience 
making laws (or abolishing them)."

He also recalls Blair, as chief, saying he didn't make the laws and 
simply had his officers enforce the ones in place. "This is his 
chance to put his money where his mouth is and prove whether his 
position as a politician is simply as a celebrity within the party or 
a true player."
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