In Canada and the UK there has been much recent debate about the possibility of easing up on cannabis laws, especially those relating to personal possession. In many cases police organizations have vocally advocated for “decriminalization” of pot possession, often with the support of reform-minded politicians. Yet although this sounds like a tempting proposition, what these cops and politicians have in mind when they say “decrim” is very different from you might expect.
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police announced in 1999 that they supported “decriminalizing” marijuana possession, replacing the current penalty of jail and a criminal record with a ticket and a fine. Canada’s RCMP also supports this kind of plan, and a 1999 report by the UK Police Foundation backed a similar policy. In November 2001, Canadian Alliance MP Keith Martin put forward a private member’s bill which would make pot possession a ticketing offence. Although unlikely to pass, it has generated much media attention and public debate.
A ticket and fine might sound like a better policy than jail, but the reality is somewhat different. In most major Canadian and UK cities, police are already highly unlikely to lay a charge for possession of pot. Usually the herb is confiscated and no further police action is taken other than humiliating the person caught. This isn’t because the police are sympathetic to pot-smokers, but rather because they simply don’t have the time to lay charges which they know will only result in a minimal penalty.
The Australian experience
The Australian state of South Australia adopted a fine system in 1987, and suffered the opposite of what was expected. Introducing a ticketing system for pot possession actually ended up bringing more marijuana smokers before the courts and into jail.
A 1998 report from the Canberra Department of Health and Family Services showed that the number of pot possession offences reported under the new system had increased about two and a half times between 1987 and 1996, because police found it so much easier to hand out an instant ticket.
Further, the payment rate of the fines was very low, so that almost half of those ticketed ended up in court for not paying their fine! The courts were having to deal with about 20% more pot-possession cases than before the fine system was put into place.
The report claims that the low rate of payment for cannabis-related fines is likely due to “financial difficulty experienced by a substantial proportion of those detected.” This makes sense when we consider who it is that usually gets caught with public possession of cannabis ? typically the young, the homeless, and others not readily capable of paying substantial fines.
The maximum fine under the South Australian system is only $150, while the ticketing system being proposed in Canada by Keith Martin would carry a $200 fine for a first pot-possession offence, escalating to $500 the second time, and to $1000 for the third offence. With the fine payment set so high there would likely be an even higher rate of default under this system.
In Canada, non-payment of a fine usually gets you jail time at a rate of $70 per day. So your third pot possession ticket would get you two weeks in jail if you couldn’t cough up $1000.
The UK proposals
In 1997 Tony Blair’s Labour government came to power in the UK, pledging a “zero tolerance” policy on drugs. Yet in October 2001, Home Secretary David Blunkett announced that the UK would probably be changing their laws on pot in spring of 2002. Cannabis would be moved from Schedule “B” to Schedule “C”. Police would be given the option of giving an “informal warning” to those found in possession of pot, while retaining the possibilities of a “formal caution” or a criminal prosecution.
Simple pot possession could still be an imprisonable offence with a maximum sentence of two years, but only if the officer decided to go that route. Supplying pot would be punishable by up to 5 years in jail, while cultivation could still get you 14 years.
Interestingly, the changes to cannabis possession law proposed by the Labour government of Tony Blair are similar to ideas put forward by Ann Widdecome, the “shadow home secretary” of UK’s Conservative opposition. In August 2000, Widdecome announced that she supported making simple possession of cannabis into a “Fixed Penalty Notice” which is essentially a ticket for “disorderly, disruptive and anti-social conduct.”
The main difference between the regime suggested by Blunkett and that proposed by Widdecome is how they were sold to the public. Widdecome came under fire because she described the Fixed Penalty Notice as being a hard-line approach, designed to make it easier for police. Blunkett sold his proposals as softening the laws, making it easier for pot smokers.
Blunkett’s sales tactic is similar to that employed by Canada’s Liberal government in 1996, when it passed the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. The Liberals told the media that the new law would ease up on persecuting pot people, yet the bill was designed only to make it easier for the police and courts to process pot offences.
For example, the mainstream media unquestioningly reported official statements from government officials, that they were changing the system so possession of under 10 grams of bud wouldn’t result in a criminal record. Government spokespeople said that “young people using marijuana for the first time, who were using it only in small quantities, would not be considered criminals… young people would not have criminal records for the rest of their lives.”
Yet in testimony before the government, Robert Kellerman of the Law Union of Ontario repeatedly explained that this was untrue. “This law will not in any way diminish the impact of the penalties on young people who are arrested for marijuana offences,” Kellerman said before Parliament. “The only thing that can be said is that, in some cases, they will not be fingerprinted. That does not in any way help them when they try to cross the American border, when they try to get jobs, or wherever having a criminal record will affect them.”
The same sort of clouded debate about criminal records is taking place in the UK. When Widdecome announced her proposed ticketing system, she was attacked for saying that the ticket produced a criminal record. She backed down, saying that the record produced by the Fixed Penalty Notice was not a real criminal record, and that it didn’t need to be revealed to an employer or government officials.
Although Blunkett has claimed that the proposed “informal warning” option for police would not result in a criminal record of any type, the changes he has announced are only proposals which will be further debated and modified before they possibly become law in spring of 2002. It is quite possible that pot possession will ultimately be placed under the Fixed Penalty Notice, making it a counter-productive ticketing scheme instead of a true easing off from pot prohibition.
These laws are being enacted for reasons of efficiency and cost effectiveness rather than due to a recognition of the evils of pot prohibition. The UK law was being promoted as “freeing up police resources and time for fighting harder drugs.” These laws still maintain the prohibitionist mindset, and are nothing more than a refocusing of police efforts towards those who grow and sell the buds smoked by others. Allowing possession and use of a substance but forbidding its production or sale is a recipe for ongoing conflict and drug war hypocrisy.
These “decriminalization” laws make the police into judge and jury, as the officer gets to decide who gets fined and who goes to jail. Under the UK’s current system, cautions as a percentage of arrests range from 22% to 72%, depending on the region. This disparity will only increase with the new laws.
Pot-people should not use these superficial changes as an excuse to relax our efforts to free our culture. These steps are not being taken to liberate us, but are last-ditch efforts by our oppressors to maintain their persecution of our favourite plant and those who love it.