HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Weeding Out Canadian Criminals
Pubdate: Fri, 30 Apr 1999
Source: Toronto Star (Canada)
Section: Opinion
Copyright: 1999, The Toronto Star
Page: A25
Author: Dave Haans, graduate student studying drug policy issues at the
University of Toronto


Something of a miracle happened in Canada this month, in its implications
for our national drug policy.

The Canadian Association of Police Chiefs' board of directors agreed to
start pressing the federal government to decriminalize possession of small
amounts of marijuana and hashish.

The reason?  Canada's courts are backlogged with thousands of minor
possession cases, and police across the country are finding themselves
without the resources to go after traffickers and other more serious criminals.

They didn't always feel this way.  When the feds were looking at introducing
the present drug law (The Controlled Drugs and Substances Act), the CAPC
found itself to be one of the few critics of softening marijuana laws in the

The majority of groups, including the Canadian Bar Association, the Criminal
Lawyers Association, the Canadian Police Association, the Canadian Medical
Association, along with policy researchers, and addiction specialists,
argued for the rethinking of marijuana laws.

The bill eventually passed with only minor modifications -- marijuana
offenders are still given a criminal record, rather than a ticket or fine,
for the possession of even tiny amounts of the drug.  What actually changed
was that marijuana offenders could be processed through the courts more
efficiently, actually  exacerbating the previous situation by allowing
police to bring even more possession cases before the courts.

Since marijuana possession cases make up the majority of all drug offences
prosecuted in Canada, the courts remain clogged, and the ability of police
to go after bigger drug offenders remains diminished.

Now, the Canadian Association of Police Chiefs has opened up the debate
considerably.  In doing so, it has also implicitly allowed other cops to
finally speak their minds on the issue of decriminalization, where before
many remained silent.

One of the most vocal critics is Constable Gil Puder, a veteran of the
Vancouver Police Department.  He has argued publicly that "the silence of
the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (on decriminalization) makes me
wonder how many senior officers built careers in drug enforcement," earning
Puder some friends and probably as many enemies among the rank-and-file.

However, some Police Chiefs have spoken out as being for decriminalization,
notably Ottawa-Carleton's Brian Ford.  Now, the silence is no more.
Vancouver, Edmonton, Sudbury and Brockville's police chiefs, and even the
RCMP, have all come out in favour of the decriminalization of marijuana.

Given the willingness of these police chiefs to voice their opinion, many
more officers will undoubtedly follow.

The federal government's response has been equally startling.  Justice
Minister Anne McLellan has said she will take seriously the opinions of the
Chiefs of Police, stating that "I think this is a significant move on the
part of the chiefs and they are a very influential voice."

Of course, there have already been some voices of dissent to the proposal,
including that of Calgary's police chief Christine Silverberg, saying that
such a move will send the wrong message to children.

But what would really happen should marijuana possession be decriminalized
in Canada?  In the 1970s, 11 American states decriminalized the possession
of less than one ounce of marijuana, replacing a criminal record with a
fine.  Research noted that while marijuana use increased (this was the 70s,
after all), the decriminalization states actually had lower increases in use
rates than neighbouring non-decriminalization states.  As well, California
enjoyed a 74 per cent drop in marijuana law enforcement costs, from $17
million to $4.4 million -- savings we could certainly use here in Canada.

More recently, several Australian states have also decriminalized the
possession of small amounts of marijuana, and the effects on use rates have
been similar -- almost non-existent.  In the Netherlands, decriminalization
of marijuana has been in effect since the 1970s.  The result?  The Dutch
enjoy much lower use rates among teens and
adults alike, and much lower law enforcement costs, than either Canada or
the United States.

Gerald Le Dain must be watching this with interest.  His 1972/3 report, a
huge study commissioned by the federal government, recommended pretty much
what the police chiefs are recommending now.  It was shelved.  Hopefully,
federal politicians won't make the same mistake again.

Dave Haans is a graduate student studying drug policy issues at the
University of Toronto.

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