HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Courting Mary Jane Is No Crime
Pubdate: Wed, 26 Jul 2000
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2000, The Globe and Mail Company
Author: William Johnson


The "war on drugs" reminds me of the Vietnam War. In both wars, all
you read in the newspapers was about the latest victory.

During the Vietnam War, it was the daily body count. The Americans
counted their victories by the number of Viet Cong reported killed.
They won every day until the final defeat.

In the war on drugs, you read recurrently about police raids, drugs
seized, people charged, convicted, sentenced, imprisoned. Each story
presents a victory over an underground army of criminals, enemies of
the people, many of them bikers and many foreigners.

Last week, for example, the Ottawa-Carleton Police Service announced
"the largest and most successful undercover drug investigation in its
history." It was called Project CAPE, and it took 16 months of
undercover investigation that culminated early last Thursday morning
when 170 police officers carried out raids in residences from Montreal
to Hamilton. They arrested 70 suspects, seized a reported $600,000
worth of marijuana, cocaine and crack cocaine, cash, stolen property
and 27 firearms.

Big deal.

This is the cloak-and-dagger war on drugs depicted in the news media.
It's the stuff of movies. And it's utterly misleading.

The real war on drugs, if you look at the statistics, is a war against
marijuana, a substance less harmful than tobacco or alcohol. It takes
up an immense amount of police time, court and lawyers' costs, the
costs of incarceration. Its true targets are ordinary citizens and
especially the young. And all that costly panoply is as futile as
declaring war on coffee.

Let me come clean.

Yes, I smoked marijuana and hashish and I inhaled, when I was a
student at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s. But
I was never more than a casual social smoker -- perhaps a total of 40
joints in a lifetime. The last time was 15 years ago, so I'm not
pleading for a personal foible. What makes me really proud is that I
kicked my addiction to cigarettes in 1967, and haven't touched tobacco

Now, let's look at the evidence. Statistics Canada released last week
its report, Crime Statistics in Canada, 1999. It is based on police
reports of infractions to the Criminal Code across the country. The
good news was that, for the eighth straight year, crime rates had
dropped in Canada.

"Over these eight years, the crime rate has decreased by an average of
4 per cent per year, resulting in the 1999 rate being the lowest since
1979," according to the report from the Canadian Centre for Justice
Statistics, which collects the data.

Ah, but there is an exception: The police reported a substantial rise
in criminal incidents related to cannabis, or hemp, which provides
marijuana and hashish. "Fuelled by a large increase in
cannabis-related offences ([up] 16 per cent) the rate of drug offences
increased by 12 per cent in 1999."

Isn't it odd that, when every form of crime is on a long-term decline
- -- murder, assault, abduction, robbery, use of firearms to commit a
crime, breaking and entering, car thefts, fraud, possession of stolen
goods -- only "crimes" related to marijuana are on the upswing?

A more detailed publication released this year by the Canadian Centre
for Justice Statistics, Illicit Drugs and Crime in Canada, reported:
"The rate of cocaine offences has dropped by 36 per cent since 1989.
The rate of heroin offences, peaking in 1993, then [fell] 25 per cent
over the last four years."

So the war on drugs is really about marijuana, as last week's
crime-statistics report indicated. And its targets are those who
possess marijuana much more than the wicked traffickers: "Cannabis
offences accounted for three-quarters of all drug-related incidents
reported in 1999, of which 66 per cent were for possession, 17 per
cent for trafficking, 15 per cent for cultivation, and 2 per cent for

The Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics reported in its Adult
Criminal Court Survey that, in 1998-99, a total of 40,056 persons were
charged with drug-related offences. Unfortunately, it does not
distinguish between cannabis and other drugs, but more than half of
those charged were charged with possession rather than trafficking.
And while 6,833 were found guilty of trafficking, a much larger number
- -- 11,480 -- were convicted for simple possession. That's the real war
on drugs.

In a judgment rendered by the British Columbia Court of Appeal on June
2 (R. v. Malmo-Levine), two out of the three judges refused to
overturn a conviction for possession of marijuana, on the grounds that
it was up to Parliament, not the courts, to amend the law. But the
majority report had some interesting observations, including this one:
  "Every year thousands of Canadians are branded with a criminal record
for a remarkably benign activity, such as smoking marijuana."

In next week's column, I'll demonstrate why Parliament must act to
decriminalize possession of marijuana. To do otherwise would be criminal.
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