America Begins to Ease Up on Marijuana Smokers

As more and more American legislators adopt progressive drug policies, Canadian activists work for similar reforms.

Barricade the border, America is going to pot.

For years we’ve heard Canada couldn’t liberalize its marijuana laws without inciting a crackdown by U.S. authorities and creating chaos along the international boundary.

Well, the shoe’s now on the other foot with some American jurisdictions telling police forces to quit making minor marijuana arrests and instead issue tickets.

In the country that four decades ago launched the interminable so-called War on Drugs? Perfidy.

Imagine, American legislators have been adopting progressive drug policies while Ottawa invoked Washington’s wrath every time a commission or smart person said hobbling someone with a criminal record for smoking a joint is misguided.

Massachusetts last week became the latest American bailiwick to abandon the failed criminal prohibition strategy and embrace a more cost-effective regulatory approach to marijuana.

Guidelines for the new state law that went into effect at the start of the New Year end criminal penalties for possession of an ounce or less of THC — the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, hashish or hash oil. They also recommend local municipalities adopt bylaws banning the use of cannabis in public.

The change was the result of a referendum in November that proposed treating pot possession not as a crime but as a civil offence carrying a penalty of a $100 fine and forfeiture of the drug.

It’s not the best approach, but it’s a start and it would be a good place for Canada to begin in terms of crafting a better drug regulatory regime. And I’ve learned a move is already under way here.

Vancouver lawyer Kirk Tousaw, assisted by local activist Jacob Hunter, has been quietly working behind the scenes with the intent of putting a similar measure before city council later this year.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the Pivot Legal Society have already endorsed the proposal.

“This is a time when resources are scarce and it makes no sense to be spending them enforcing a law that hurts people and does nothing to improve public safety,” he said.

“The primary negative social consequence associated with cannabis is the effect of a criminal conviction on one’s future prospects and activities. And tens of thousands of Canadians are charged, each year, with simple possession of cannabis.”

The proposal is also in line with public opinion, Tousaw added, citing recent polls that suggest a substantial majority of Canadians support a non-criminal approach to marijuana.

American cities that have adopted such a non-enforcement policy towards minor pot offences include Berkeley, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Santa Monica and San Francisco in California, Denver, Colo., and Washington, D.C.

The cost of enforcement together with the social and personal damage that flow from a criminal conviction was simply too high.

It is difficult to pinpoint the Vancouver Police Department’s cannabis-related enforcement costs because its budget does not break down expenses by type of offence.

Tousaw said, however, the $173-million budget does provide enough information that, combined with data from Statistics Canada, allows for a good guess — it’s at least $4.5 million.

“That’s money that could be far better spent,” he said. “It’s more than twice what the city spent on housing in 2007, for instance.”

Although the federal government is responsible for the criminal law, Tousaw said the local police board is charged under provincial legislation with setting priorities for the force.

He wants to put a resolution before city council that urges the police board to do exactly that — especially since it is in line with the current city drug strategy.

Among 15- to 19-year-olds in B.C., occasional and regular use of cannabis is higher than is tobacco use. The lifetime use of cannabis in B.C. for those 15 and over is 52.1 per cent, the highest in Canada.

“The proposals are intended to align with both municipal policy and the VPD’s existing drug policy,” Tousaw said.

“The body of evidence in the area of harm associated with cannabis use and cannabis policy, while subject to some debate at the margins, is relatively uniform: Adult cannabis use can present some health risks, but those risks are minor and well below the threshold we accept for many other substances and activities.”

The cannabis prohibition has failed to curb either the demand or supply of pot products while creating a vast, highly profitable and dangerous black market dominated by organized crime.

It’s time to consider other approaches.

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– Article from The Vancouver Sun.