Decriminalization of pot will disarm gangs

Anti-marijuana legislation only serves to protect organized crime

Over the past few months, the headlines in Victoria speak eloquently to the fact that today's marijuana prohibitions simply do not work, and instead fuel crime.

"Five thousand marijuana plants worth $1 million seized." "Police seize 400 pot plants in Esquimalt." "Saanich police seize guns, drugs; three held." These headlines clearly reflect marijuana's entrenchment in B.C.'s capital and the expansion of the criminal underworld.

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At the same time, Victoria police note that gangs from the Lower Mainland are infiltrating the capital city. Earlier this year, a local man with ties to Vancouver-area gangsters was dramatically arrested in Esquimalt beside a Shoppers Drug Mart.

Obviously, the stated intention of prohibition to reduce cannabis supply and suppress demand for marijuana isn't working in Victoria. That's not surprising - it's not working anywhere in B.C. About 5,300 British Columbians were charged in 2010 with cannabis-related offences, and 71 per cent of the province's drug offences in 2010 involved marijuana. Prince George, Nanaimo and Kelowna, in addition to the Lower Mainland, have all witnessed gang violence recently.

As a legal expert and a doctor and researcher, we know that cannabis prohibition causes serious unintended consequences, including massive profits for violent gangs, unregulated and dangerous growops, growing organizedcrime concerns and increasing access to marijuana among youth.

This week, the debate over marijuana policy comes to Victoria during the Union of British Columbia Municipalities convention. Municipal politicians will vote on a series of resolutions, including one stating support for decriminalizing cannabis and researching the taxation and regulation of the drug.

B.C.'s mayors and councillors should back the resolution. Their communities bear the brunt of the unintended harms of marijuana prohibition, so municipalities have a massive stake in fixing the financial and community safety issues surrounding the continuation of the war on drugs.

Earlier this year, a new coalition of legal, law-enforcement and public-health experts known as Stop the Violence B.C. was launched to "break the silence" regarding the failure and negative consequences of cannabis prohibition. Rather than advocate for a free-market approach to legalized marijuana sales that would allow advertisement and promotion of marijuana use, the coalition is calling for a strictly regulated legal market for adult marijuana use under a public health framework.

Research clearly suggests that a regulated model could redirect the hundreds of millions of dollars that currently fuel violence in the illegal market to the provincial government in the form of taxation. More importantly, moving away from a profit-driven and increasingly violent unregulated market to a strictly regulated legal market has the potential to actually reduce rates of marijuana use, in the same way that regulatory tools have dramatically cut rates of tobacco use.

In spite of law-enforcement efforts, we are not protecting young people from the easy availability of marijuana. Although Canada has seen a 70 per cent increase in the number of cannabis-related arrests between 1990 and 2009, the increase in anti-drug law-enforcement expenditures has not made cannabis less available to teenagers and young adults in B.C.

According to the 2009 Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey, 27 per cent of B.C.'s youth (aged 15 to 24) used cannabis at least once in the previous year.

The B.C. public gets it. An Angus Reid poll last fall found that 87 per cent of B.C. respondents link gang violence to organized crime's efforts to control the province's massive illegal cannabis trade. A further 69 per cent stated that arresting marijuana producers and sellers is ineffective, and that B.C. would be better off taxing and regulating the use of marijuana.

Although many municipal politicians are playing catch-up to public sentiment, some are leading the call for change. Recently, a coalition of B.C. mayors wrote a letter to provincial political leaders urging them to support the regulation and taxation of cannabis to better protect our communities, reduce crime and undercut gang activity resulting from the illegal marijuana trade. Unfortunately, the province's MLAs and other provincial leaders have remained largely silent on this issue.

Conservative economist Milton Friedman, who won the Nobel Prize in 1976, held strong views about government and marijuana prohibition. He noted: "If you look at the drug war from a purely economic point of view, the role of the government is to protect the drug cartel."

Isn't it time that government got out of the business of protecting markets for drug gangs? Support for the UBCM resolution would send a strong message that the status quo is no longer an option and political action is needed now to overturn prohibition and implement common-sense cannabis laws.

Dr. Evan Wood, a physician, and Geoff Plant, a lawyer and former attorney general of B.C., spoke at a UBCM debate on marijuana policy on Monday at the Victoria Convention Centre.

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