Beyond Prohibition

It was like a pot parliament, and all the founding fathers of legalization were present.
Included among the attendees at the first ever Beyond Prohibition Conference were a British Columbia Mayor, a Canadian Senator, the founder of US NORML, a former police officer, a British Columbia Health Ministry consultant, a medpot prescribing California doctor, university professors from around the world, and some local compassion club founders and growers. They had collected at Simon Fraser University’s illustrious Wosk Centre in downtown Vancouver on May 8, 2004 to coenvision what the world might be like after the drug war.

Although everyone at the conference panned the previous Liberal government’s fake version of decriminalization, which would have seen increased enforcement and punishments, not everyone agreed on what legalization should look like either.

Differing visions

At least two competing visions of legalization emerged during the conference. The first advocated strong regulations that would preserve mom and pop grow ops while shutting out mobsters and bikers. Age and possibly advertising restrictions, highly controlled sales like we have for alcohol, moderate-to-high taxes, and quality control – all would play a roll in a strongly regulated legal environment. Supporters for various aspects of this model included Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell, former police officer Walter McKay, Senator Pierre Claude Nolin and Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy founder Eugene Oscapella.

The second vision of legalization that emerged during the conference advocated no restrictions whatsoever, and found its strongest supporter in Libertarian economist and University of Boston Professor Jeffrey Miron.

“The presumption of many prohibitionist critics is that a post-prohibition regime should have substantial amounts of government involvement in the market for marijuana,” said Miron. “It does not mean that partial measures [toward legalization]are bad, simply that they’re not as good as possible.”

Miron reasoned that age restrictions would just teach kids that “laws are for suckers, and how to get around them using their friends and other people”. He contended that high “sin” taxes imply that marijuana is harmful and immoral when it is not, and might create incentive for a continued underground economy. Paradoxically, Miron also suggested employers should have the liberty to conduct workplace drug testing, which has been ruled unconstitutional in Canada.

Another contentious suggestion of Miron’s was that current estimates of the BC Bud industry’s size – pegged at around $10 billion annually – are way too high. Instead, he calculated that since Canada’s economy is one-tenth that of the US, our bud industry must be one-tenth the size as well. While many presenters disagreed with Miron’s figures, the professor calculated that legalization in Canada could yield $400-$500 million in annual tax revenues and save $300 million in enforcement costs. So Canada’s minimal annual windfall from legalization would be somewhere in the neighbourhood of $800 million each year.

Miron had good news for growers, too. According to his calculations, the price of pot wouldn’t drop substantially under legalization.

Medpot or not?

Vancouver Island Compassion Society founder Philippe Lucas chastised government medpot grow contractor Prairie Plant Systems (PPS) for spending millions to produce schwaggy, low potency, lead and arsenic contaminated buds for legally licensed sick people.

“On their website, the government suggests using other methods of ingestion [besides smoking], like suppositories,” said Lucas. “That’s where I would tell them to stick it.”

He saw legalization as the answer to improved quality.

“Under a legal system, [government medpot grower]Prairie Plant Systems would have no monopoly, there would be no health canada system [to approve medpot for the sick], and people could choose from the sources they want. They would benefit from symptom-specific strains and entrepreneurs could experiment with safe ingestion techniques like vapourization.”

Indeed, Eric Nash and Wendy Little, Canada’s first producers of certified organic cannabis, where on hand to tout the benefits of their product, which in a legalized environment could be available to Canadians everywhere. Furthermore, a legalized environment could mean less expensive or even free pot for the sick. So said Hilary Black and Rielle Capler of the BC Compassion Club Society, who complained that some patients who frequented their establishment spent their food money on cannabis.

“There is no point in having a fridge full of food if you have no appetite,” said the duo, explaining that many patients need medpot to quell nausea. “[Under legalization] we could open a sexy high-end hash cafe to fund the supply of medicine to our clients.”

BC Ministry of Health Services consultant Dr Brian Emerson suggested that the government should get out of full-scale prohibition, and described the traditional health policy approach to drugs of “maximizing benefits and minimizing harms for individuals, communities and society.”

The traditional approach, Emerson showed, assumes that legalization equals increased use, and increased use equals increased harms. Since the “increased use equals increased harms” argument was recently used by Canada’s Supreme Court to squash a constitutional challenge to the nation’s pot laws, it drew unfavourable criticism from many attendees.

Emerson concluded that the hypothetical and unproven risk to a small section of the population was outweighed by the greater risk posed by prohibition, which still denies many legitimate patients legal access to pot medicine and criminalizes and jails millions more otherwise law-abiding citizens.

Medpot prescribing California Doctor Tod Mikuriya lectured toward other presenters, ripping apart halfway measures with a characteristically poetic intelligence. He blasted the notion that legalization might equal increased use, pointing to Holland for proof that lighter laws actually result in fewer people using cannabis.

Then he addressed the notion that drug testing should be acceptable in a legalized environment.

“Drug testing is a moral idea supported by junk science, not protecting anyone, not for fitness for duty,” he chided. “Where did we get this idea? From the middle ages, when they thought you were possessed if you took a substance. Now we think people are possessed by drug metabolites, and we treat them the same way.”

Canada and the US

Many realized that Canada does not exist in a drug-policy vacuum. Canadians face immense international pressure to continue the odious practice of jailing herb smokers – particularly from the US.

Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell was the first at the conference to acknowledge the problem of US influence while still supporting legalization.

Campbell mentioned a recent study showing that marijuana wasn’t a gateway drug then chided, “I’m sure the study will be refuted by [US Drug Czar] John Walters by noon today!” He then told how John Walters had once tried to convince Campbell that US treatment centres were full of marijuana addicts. They offer offenders a choice between treatment and jail, Campbell explained, and so of course they choose treatment.

Later Mayor Campbell added that “all of our drug war policies, all of them are set by the US. We are being led around by the US.” Regardless, he said, “If marijuana was charged in a court, no jury in their right mind would convict and that is why I have long supported legalization!”

As for the Mayor’s vision of a drug-war free society, he sees marijuana sale regulated like alcohol and other recreational drugs.

“I don’t want Rothmans taking over the marijuana industry. I don’t want them to have the ability to make a huge amount of dollars on this. What I want is to stop people from going to jail. To stop the waste of resources.”

The Mayor also envisioned a better role for city police.

“Imagine a city where 14,000 arrests don’t happen. Where police do work on behalf of the community. Where they help little old ladies cross the street and protect children. Where they go back to their beat.”

Keith Stroup, founder of the US National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), later poked huge holes in the US-lead international treaties that are routinely pointed to by Canadian politicians who claim the treaties obligate the country to a war on weed. These treaties include the Single Convention Treaty of 1961, the 1971 Convention on Psychedelic Substances and the 1988 United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. Stroup revealed that international think-tanks and even the architects of these treaties described them as allowing considerable flexibility for nations to choose their own drug policy.

“[The treaties] allow for personal use and sharing marijuana among friends,” Stroup revealed. “The Ledaine commission was the first to interpret it otherwise. Others then went further and claimed it was an impediment to decriminalization.”

Eugene Oscapella from the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy observed that Canada doesn’t supply as much pot to the US as the CIA claims.

“If we stopped shipping every gram we made to the US market it would only be a decrease of 5-10%,” stated Oscapella, who is a lawyer and has been researching the weed war for decades. “We are not a major provider to the US economy. It’s important to remember that in this debate.”

Oscapella suggested that instead of a war on weed, we should have a “war on irresponsibility,” where we held the government accountable for policies that kill people, policies that deny sick people their medicine and put people in jail for a joint.

Drug war or class war?

Hailing from the University of Amsterdam, Professor Peter Cohen had firsthand experience of the benefits to be reaped by lighter laws. He eloquently described the drug war’s true function: cannabis arrests are greater in areas of high urbanization,which means it is a war on the poor and on minorities.

To Cohen, the drug war focusses absurdly on an aspect of behaviour that isn’t much different from many human fixations.

“People use these substances and work them into their lives,” he explained. “Those that organize their lives around it are less than one percent. What about people who fixate around being a politician? We don’t consider them afflicted. It’s about lifestyle.”

Former police officer Walter McKay, now a spokesperson for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), boldly agreed that “we need legalized everything.” McKay was once a narc in downtown Vancouver’s skid row, one of the city’s “highly urbanized” areas where the drug war was a daily battle. He told the audience how even middle class children can be absorbed into a wealthless minority afflicted by prohibition.

McKay displayed pictures of a heroin addicted teen before she died. He took a few pictures of her over the course of a couple years, and we saw the healthy teen’s face transform, become covered in sores, her wasted body finally disposed of in a dumpster.

“She’s like that because of prohibition, not because of addiction. The sores on ther face are due to impurities in the drug because we can’t regulate it [under prohibition],” he asserted. “School children report it is easier to buy illegal drugs than it is to buy beer or cigarettes, because it is illegal. The drug market is the only area of crime where, when I arrest someone, there is someone there right away to take his spot. I can’t pull his license, I have no regulatory control over that, because I just said no.”

Fake Decrim

Canadian Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, like many of the presenters, was dead set against the previous Liberal government’s fake decriminalization bill, calling it a “worst case scenario.” In 2002, Nolin headed a Senate Committee on marijuana that urged the government to legalize, and he sees a flowery future for cannabis Canadians.

“Things are starting to change in Canada. Finally, after more than 80 years of prohibition of cannabis Sthere is hope that the 21st century will mark the end of this insidious policy which has not had any beneficial long-term effects.”

He listed four guiding principles for creating a new drug strategy in Canada, including principles of ethics based on reciprocal autonomy and responsibility, governance that respects individual choice, laws based on the standard of significant harm to others, and a scientific principle that honours knowledge in decision making.

Nolin, like Mayor Campbell, was cheered during an enthusiastic standing ovation. If all politicians were as enlightened as Nolin and Campbell, the weed war would have ended long ago.

[Note from the author: An earlier, less complete version of this story appeared on the website a few weeks ago. The previous provides a fuller account of the conference.]