Despite almost a century of prohibition, millions of Canadians today regularly consume marijuana and other cannabis products. Opponents of the criminalization of marijuana cite that criminalization makes poor use of taxpayer’s money, diverts police resources from dealing with more pressing crime, and holds too harsh of penalties on those charged with pot possession.
Sensible B.C. is working to decriminalize the simple possession of cannabis in British Columbia through the Sensible Policing Act. Amanda Orum, organizer of the local Nanaimo chapter, stated “the Sensible Policing Act would amend the Police Act to redirect all police in the province from taking any action, including searches, seizures, citations, or arrests in cases of simple cannabis possession by adults.” This would apply to all RCMP and municipal police in B.C. Secondly, the Sensible Policing Act would prompt the federal government to repeal the cannabis prohibition, in order that B.C. could begin legally taxing and regulating cannabis, just like alcohol and tobacco.
B.C. has Canada’s highest rate of police reported incidents for simple possession of marijuana. According to Sensible B.C., over 3580 British Columbians were charged with simple possession of marijuana last year—double the rate of charges of any other province, and this number is increasing. The number of arrests for pot possession rose by 41% from 2006- 2012, totalling an estimated 405, thousand marijuana related arrests. According to Tim Smith, editor of Cannabis Digest, marijuana was initially made illegal because allowing farmers to grow hemp varieties threatened the potential profits of many industries, including fuel, paper, fabric, paint, and plastics. Cannabis hemp, used in rope and cloth, was a pioneer industry for over 300 years from 1680-1930. He explains “the Reefer Madness campaign [a 1936 film dramatizing the effects of marijuana use] was a smokescreen used to distract citizens from the elimination of hemp by creating the word marijuana and fabricating stories about how its use leads to murder, rape, and insanity.”
Even before the Reefer Madness campaign, Emily Murphy, the high-profile magistrate, suffragette, and anti-drug activist wrote in her famous book The Black Candle that “persons using this narcotic smoke…has the effect of driving them completely insane. The addict loses all sense of moral responsibility.” Murphy also held a hearing where U.S. officials said marijuana made black men sexually aggressive and Mexicans belligerent. A year later, in 1923, Canada became one of the first countries to outlaw marijuana, adding it to the schedule of controlled substances such as cocaine and opium. Looking back on the government action, in the 2002 Canadian Senate committee report, “Cannabis: Our Position for a Canadian Public Policy,” it is stated that “early drug legislation was largely based on a moral panic, racist sentiment, and a notorious absence of debate.”
Furthermore, the report concluded that the criminalization of marijuana had no scientific basis.
When the Conservative government came to power in 2006, they announced their “war on drugs.” The director of Sensible B.C., Dana Larsen, told Macleans that in particular, the Tories were targeting marijuana.
The new Conservative crime bill includes much harsher penalties. These include a six month minimum sentence for those growing as few as six cannabis plants, and a doubled maximum sentence of 14 years for trafficking pot. Back in 2002, the Senate report mentioned above, the annual cost of cannabis to the law enforcement and justice system totalled a detrimental $300-500 million. Stats Canada reports that those in their late teens-mid 20’s are the most likely to be accused of drug offenses. This age demographic is less likely to afford the hefty lawyer bill, and will most likely continue paying the consequences for the rest of their lives.
Marc Emery, a Canadian cannabis policy reform advocate, a politician, and media publisher currently serving a five year prison sentence in a United States federal prison, largely for his political activities legalizing cannabis and fundraising to finance the movement, contends that marijuana is safer than alcohol. He said that “while we penalize and stigmatize the use of marijuana, we create an environment where young people and people of all ages will find it more legally permissible and cheaper to consume alcohol.” He declares that alcohol is implicated in rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, crimes of violence, and crimes of theft, whereas use of marijuana is neither criminogenic nor conducive to violence or sexual assault.
Emery also raises the argument that prohibition of cannabis fosters criminal organizations and gangs. He said “prohibition makes becoming a pot dealer financially attractive to young people, and corrupts their work ethic with easy profits that can only be sustained in an illegal market.” Finally, he adds that “no substance should be banned––only anti-social behaviour that can be proven in court should be penalized”.
Sensible B.C. is currently lobbying all political parties to support the Sensible Policing Act. Starting September 9, Sensible B.C. will be collecting signatures from voters in B.C. until December 5 in order to instigate a provincial referendum on the Sensible Policing Act. 450 thousand signatures are needed in order for the referendum to proceed. The Nanaimo chapter hopes to gather about 6000 signatures.