Decriminalize Pot, Destabilize Gangs

Keith Martin, a Canadian Alliance MP at the time, gestures during a news conference in Ottawa on Jan. 14, 2004. (CP Photo)Keith Martin, a Canadian Alliance MP at the time, gestures during a news conference in Ottawa on Jan. 14, 2004. (CP Photo)The illegal drug trade and substance abuse must be stripped of their myths and put front and centre on the political agenda, Liberal MP Keith Martin argues

Should the 1.5 million Canadians who smoke marijuana every year be considered criminals, prosecuted and receive a criminal record? Should teenagers convicted for possessing a small amount of pot acquire a criminal record that sticks to them for life, hindering their future employment, travel, and educational opportunities? Should the possession of a small amount of pot remain illegal – a position that has been utterly ineffective at reducing its use?

Cannabis is a drug with health risks. People should not use it since it damages the heart, lungs and other tissues, and affects a person’s cognitive abilities. However, as the 2002 Senate report on illegal drugs said, “the scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that cannabis is substantially less harmful than alcohol and should be treated not as a criminal issue, but as a social and public health issue.” A year before, the House of Commons special committee on the non-medicinal use of drugs went even further, recommending that Canada should decriminalize the “possession and cultivation of less that 30 grams of cannabis for personal use.” Yet, 15,000 Canadians are charged with possession of pot every single year.

The only beneficiaries of the status quo are the organized crime gangs that reap massive profits from the prohibition of this weed. In fact, 70 per cent of their revenues come from the trafficking in illegal drugs. In British Columbia alone, the marijuana crop is valued at a staggering $6-billion a year.

It is time that we ended this charade. The “war on drugs” has done nothing to reduce illegal drug use, crime, harm, or cost.

Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize winning economist, had it right when he said that the best way to go after organized crime gangs is to go after their money, which is their lifeblood. One way to do this is to decriminalize the possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana and two plants. Pot would still be illegal, but a person would receive a fine, similar to a parking ticket, rather than going through the expensive judicial system. Thus, they would not receive a criminal record, and the enduring harm this does to their lives. Decriminalizing the possession of up to two plants for personal use is crucial, for this would sever the tie between the casual marijuana user and the dealer, who ultimately connects to the commercial grow operations and organized crime gangs. This would ultimately destroy the domestic pot market for illegal crime gangs and severely weaken their financial underpinnings.

However, this initiative to decriminalize marijuana possession must do much more. It must lead to the burial of the ideology and lies that have clouded the facts around substance abuse and deprived our citizens of initiatives that will reduce use, crime and harm. The money saved from not prosecuting people caught with a small amount of pot could be used to fund prevention programs that work — like the Head Start program for children, which has been proven to reduce youth crime 60 percent, decrease drug use, and keep kids in school. It could also fund effective drug treatment programs – like the North American Opiate Medication Initiative (NAOMI) that enables addicts to receive legal drugs under medical supervision. This also severs the ties between the addict and organized crime. NAOMI has reduced crime, reduced harm, and has enabled addicts to become integrated back into society.

This initiative must also lead to new approaches that go far beyond our borders, as the illegal drug trade is transcontinental, worth nearly $1-trillion and is destabilizing countries from Mexico to Afghanistan. We must not forget that it is our demand for illegal drugs that is fueling the outright street warfare that has claimed 7,000 lives in Mexico in the last year alone, and the insurgency in Afghanistan that is killing our troops.

The illegal drug trade and substance abuse must be taken out from the shadows, stripped of their myths and put front and centre on the political agenda. We need to treat substance abuse as a medical problem and use the full force of the law against the organized crime gangs that are eating away at the fabric of our society. Only by doing this will we reduce criminality, reduce use and save people’s lives.

Dr. Keith Martin is the Liberal MP for Esquimalt – Juan de Fuca

– Article from The Globe & Mail