In the eight years that I have been studying and critiquing the war on marijuana, I've occasionally been asked why I spend so much time on an issue many people think is, at best, trivial. I answered by citing the involvement of major organized crime networks, the billions of dollars spent on enforcement, and the criminalization of hundreds of thousands of otherwise lawful citizens for consuming a substance that is, by any fair measure, less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco.
But today there is a simpler response: Four men are dead.
Let this be the end of scant attention, of dismissive comments, of news stories laced with trivializing puns and juvenile jokes. Marijuana is an urgent issue of public policy. The police complained for years that the media and the public do not appreciate that this is a serious matter, that the spread of grow-ops is a risk to public safety, that good men and women are in jeopardy every time they bang on a door with a search warrant. They were right all along. Let us respect the police by treating the issue with the same solemnity and gravity they surely feel while contemplating the deaths of their comrades. That means, among others things, not acting rashly. It is only human that the shock and sorrow of such a crime would give way to anger and an urge to hit hard and fast.
Already there have been calls for tougher enforcement and harsher laws, including severe mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana growers. Anne McLellan, the public safety minister, says government is considering just that, while RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli has promised a crackdown and a renewed commitment to making "a drug-free Canada."
But to treat the issue with solemnity and gravity means precisely to take care that passion does not overwhelm judgment. It means gathering the evidence, examining the arguments and thinking hard about the way forward. It means asking ourselves how it ever came to be that police officers were murdered because of a plant.
That's all marijuana is, after all. It's just a plant, a common and easily grown one. In many cultures, its consumption was lawful for millennia. And in all that time, the bond between thugs, mayhem, murder and marijuana that we see today did not exist.
That changed early in the 20th century. In 1923, Canada -- with not a word of discussion in Parliament -- banned marijuana. Other countries -- motivated as Canada was by a toxic mix of popular myths, pseudo-science and racism -- did the same. The moment they did, the trade left the hands of law-abiding producers and fell to the exclusive control of criminals. That control, not any property of the drug itself, is the steel link between marijuana and crime.
At the same time in the U.S., Prohibition created precisely the same link between alcohol and crime -- the only difference being that it was broken when alcohol was legalized in 1933.
This brief history is relatively uncontroversial. Aside from a few zealots who still cling to the fantasy that there is something about the chemistry of marijuana that makes users more inclined to crime, no one really disputes that the bond between marijuana and crime is exclusively the result of the fact marijuana is illegal. The grow-ops, the gangsters and, yes, the dangers faced by police officers enforcing the law: All these exist because of a policy decision.
"The way we've done it now is marijuana has become the exclusive prerogative of the criminal element because there's such fantastic profit in it," said Nick Taylor, a former Alberta senator. "I'm not saying that the four men would be alive if we had legalized marijuana, but I suspect they might be."
Legalization would undeniably break the link between marijuana and crime. That's a major reason why a Senate Special Committee recommended that marijuana be legalized and regulated.
Unfortunately, the police ignored the senators and their 650-page report -- one of the most comprehensive ever produced in any country -- and instead pressed for more resources and tougher laws. The government, too, never gave the Senate report the slightest consideration. Instead, the Liberals introduced a bill that would "decriminalize" the possession of small amounts of marijuana -- meaning a ticket instead of a criminal charge -- while boosting the maximum sentences for large-scale growers. And this was before the murders on Thursday and Ms. McLellan's promise to consider further sentencing increases for growers.
If this issue is to be treated seriously, this dismissiveness must end, and a real discussion must be had. The Liberal policy convention in Ottawa this weekend offers a real hope for just that.
Two resolutions are on the agenda: One calls for tougher sentences on grow operators; the other calls for the legalization of marijuana. It's a good chance to ask some hard questions.
Most basically, why does anyone think harsher sentences will accomplish anything? The police say this will deter would-be growers, noting that in the United States, producers and traffickers are punished far more severely. But criminological research consistently shows tougher sentences do not deter crime. And the police never mention that despite the tough U.S. sentences, and the immense sums of money spent fighting the war on marijuana, government reports routinely find the U.S. is awash in marijuana, and the largest source of it is the United States itself.
Recent Canadian history makes the same point. In the early 1960s, Canada's already tough drug laws were made tougher on the advice of the top U.S. drug official, who insisted that longer sentences deterred drug crime. And almost immediately after the new sentences came into force, drug production, dealing and use began to soar -- and kept on rising for almost two decades, even at a time when the simple possession of a joint could mean serious jail time.
Here's a simpler question: Can those who support a crackdown name any country in which tougher law enforcement has successfully suppressed the illicit marijuana trade? A few years ago, a United Nations report attempted to dismiss the argument that drug prohibition is futile by pointing out that there was one successful example: Maoist China. Assuming we wish to remain a liberal democracy, what basis do those advocating a crackdown on marijuana production have for thinking it will do anything more than put more officers' lives at risk?
As always, reasonable people can differ on this issue, and if those who insist on sticking with prohibition have a case to make -- with evidence, not the assumptions and conjecture that too often pass for argument -- I want to hear it. Honest disagreement is honourable.
Hypocrisy isn't. Over the years I've had many private conversations about drugs with politicians, political staff, senior civil servants, journalists and police officers. And what I hear in private is not what I hear in public. In Official Ottawa, a remarkable number of people -- including some renowned and powerful figures -- think the war on marijuana is nothing less than ludicrous. And, truth be told, more than a few like to smoke an occasional joint.
As long as marijuana could be dismissed as a trivial issue, this hypocrisy could be shrugged off as a venal sin. But now four men are dead.
They died in pursuit of a futile policy, and if that policy doesn't change more officers will put themselves at risk and sooner or later more names will be etched into the police memorials.
More than anything, treating the issue with due solemnity and gravity requires honesty. It is time those who have kept silent to find their courage and speak up.
Dan Gardner can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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