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July 13, 2007 - Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)

Column: The Police Aren't Experts On Drug Use

By Dan Gardner

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Well, thank goodness the Conservative government has silenced all talk of liberalizing Canada's marijuana laws. The way things were going, teenagers may have completely stopped smoking pot.

What's that, you say? I have it backward?

Everybody knows it's the namby-pamby approach that leads to more teens using drugs, while a hard line keeps kids on the straight and narrow. It's common sense. It's what the police say. And as we all know, what the police say is the gold standard of common sense.

When the renowned social scientists of the Canadian Police Association testified to a Senate committee on illicit drugs, they claimed there is lots of evidence that liberal drug policies lead to greater drug use. "Legalization and permissiveness will increase drug use and abuse substantially," a spokesman told the senators.

Everybody knows the police are the real experts on drugs, right? And the experts came out against decriminalization. Even talking about it sends a bad message to the kids, they argued. It says the drug is harmless. Acceptable. Keep it up, the police warned, and pretty soon your kid's high school will look like the set of a Cheech and Chong movie.

And isn't that exactly what happened? In early 2003, several Ontario courts ruled that as a result of the government's failure to properly handle the medical marijuana issue, the ban on possessing small amounts of marijuana was no longer in force. In effect, pot possession was legal. And it stayed legal until those rulings were overturned in October of that year.

Around the same time, the Liberal government introduced a bill that would have decriminalized possession of pot in small quantities. It didn't get to a final vote before the June 2004 election and the idea sat in limbo until the Conservatives killed it after taking power in early 2006.

So from 2003 to 2005, Canada flirted with softer marijuana laws. Kids got the message that pot is dandy. Critics said the results were clear.

"More and more teenagers (are) using a wider variety and larger quantity of drugs and alcohol," a September 2005 story in the Citizen reported. The source of this observation was the director of a drug treatment centre. And he knew the culprit. All this talk about softening the marijuana law "has left people with the perception that this is a harmless substance."

Why, it was nothing less than a crisis. Former mayor Bob Chiarelli claimed during the last municipal election that 40 to 60 per cent of students were using the drug. He promised a crackdown. "Not a minute too soon," wrote an alarmed newspaper columnist. And then this very week, it was reported that a United Nations report found Canada has the highest rate of marijuana use in the developed world.

So there it is. Go soft and kids smoke up. Get tough and kids stay safe. What more evidence do we need?

Well, there are a few more numbers we might consider. Nineteen is an interesting one. You can find it on page 116 of that UN report. "A strong decline in cannabis use was also reported among high school students in Ontario (-19 per cent over the 2003-2005 period)," the UN says. "The previous upward trend was thus reversed."

Wow, is that strange or what? Pot smoking among Ontario teens was rising until 2003. But then the rate fell by almost one-fifth between 2003 and 2005. So the law went limp -- and teens dropped the weed. Golly. That's not the way it's supposed to work.

These data have been available for a long time. Not that anyone noticed. (The survey also showed that 26 per cent of Ontario students in Grades 7 to 12 said they had used marijuana at least once in the previous year, while five per cent reported weekly use and only three per cent said they smoked pot daily -- which makes Mr. Chiarelli's beliefs about pot smoking in school look like something that came to him after a couple of bong hits.)

This is not the only blow to "common sense" found in the UN report. One graph compares marijuana use among American high school students with their Ontario counterparts between 1975 and 2005. The trend lines are identical. If use goes up in the United States, it goes up in Ontario. Down in the U.S., down in Ontario. Needless to say, policies, politics and "messages" often varied on either side of the border over those three decades. But the results were always the same.

Golly. It's not supposed to work that way, either.

Then there's the United Kingdom. In 2001, the British government announced it would effectively decriminalize marijuana possession. That finally happened in January 2004. And consumption rates? A decline started in 2003. "Cannabis use is now showing a downward trend," the UN report says.

So that's a downward trend over the past few years in Canada, the U.S. and Britain. Anywhere else? Sweden, which takes a very hard line on marijuana. Australia, which is more liberal. And the Netherlands, where possession and some sales are effectively legal. So we've got a bunch of countries following different policies and getting the same results. Huh? Who would have guessed?

Well, I would have. In fact, I did. Ever since I started writing about drugs 10 years ago, I've argued that the law isn't what determines drug-use rates. Punitive law. Permissive law. It doesn't matter.

How did I figure this out? It was easy. I stopped listening to the police. See, the police are not the experts they think they are. They aren't social scientists. They don't know how to gather and analyse data. And a lot of what they say about drugs is nonsense.

The experts I listen to are scientists. "Existing research seems to indicate that there is little apparent relationship between severity of sanctions prescribed for drug use and prevalence or frequency of use," concluded a 2001 report by a panel of the National Research Council, one of the U.S. National Academies of Science, probably the most esteemed scientific body in the world.

I like police officers. I really do. If I get mugged, they're the first people I'll call. But I wouldn't ask a cop to do my bypass surgery, teach my kids grammar or fix my car. Nothing personal. They're just not qualified.

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