DESCRIMinalization: Decrim Myths, Decrim Facts

Click illustration to enlarge.Click illustration to enlarge.CANNABIS CULTURE – Is marijuana decriminalization a step in the right direction or a crafty trick to widen the net of the Drug Warriors?

From the Editor: David Malmo-Levine is a prominent Vancouver activist currently facing prison time for his marijuana-related civil disobedience. David has been on the front lines of Drug War activism for over 15 years and is a regular contributor to Cannabis Culture and Pot-TV. Though the opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Cannabis Culture staff and editors, we felt it important to publish David’s research in hopes that it will foster further constructive debate on the subject of decriminalization.

“Several people, spearheaded by Hunter Thompson, attacked the current strategy of decriminalized pot as “another trick.”
– High Times, March 1977

Another trick

Marijuana decriminalization is a wolf in sheep’s clothing – a prohibitionist Trojan Horse – a horrible drug policy wrapped in a nice-sounding name.

Pot Decriminalization Timeline

1920: The British government passes the Dangerous Drugs Act, which controls the sale of cannabis tinctures. “Indian Hemp” is added to the Act in 1925.

1923: The Canadian government adds cannabis to the Opium and Drug act of 1911, prohibiting its sale and possession.

1937: The US government passes the Marijuana Tax Act, which effectively prohibits all cannabis sales.

1944: “The Mayor’s Committee on Marihuana”, commissioned by New York City mayor F. H. LaGuardia, suggests cannabis prohibition should remain “until and if complete findings may justify an amendment to existing laws”.

1950’s: Pot activism begins in the US with Louis Armstrong writing a letter to President Eisenhower urging legalization.

1961: The UN passes the Single Convention on Narcotics treaty which discourages the use of – and prohibits the cultivation and distribution of – cannabis “for other than medical and scientific purposes” (subject to the constitutions of the signatories).

1965: Pioneer cannabis activist Allen Ginsberg writes in his “First Manifesto to End the Bringdown” that the prohibition of marijuana should end, the “administrative, business and mass media” entities responsible should be investigated for breaking “laws of malfeasance”, and reparations should be paid.

1968 – March: The University of California Medical Center hosts a “Marijuana Symposium”, the contributions of which are gathered in the fall 1968 edition of the Journal of Psychedelic Drugs. Two presenters at the symposium – Michael A. Town and William McGlothlin – recommend reducing the penalties for marijuana possession from a felony to a misdemeanor.

1968 – November: “Cannabis – Report by the Advisory Committee on Drug Dependence” – otherwise known as the “Wootton Report” – is published in Britain. The report recommends making imprisonment for cannabis possession a rare occasion, but recommends maintaining the criminal prohibition on cannabis possession.

1970 – June: The Canadian LeDain Commission publishes its interim report, recommending that jail should not be an option for punishment of simple possession of cannabis. They also state that jail should not be an option for unpaid fines for simple possession, and that fines should be limited to $100. The Trudeau Government promises “no jail time” for users in the June 20th Globe & Mail, and then retracts the promise in the next day’s papers.

1971: Keith Stroup opens up NORML to the public early in the year, with the help of $5000 grant from Playboy magazine. Originally formulated as the “National Organization for the Repeal of Marijuana Laws”, Stroup changed “Repeal” to “Reform” after talking with lawyer Ramsey Clark. The initial goal of NORML then becomes ending only the criminal penalties for the use of marijuana.

1972 – March: The US Shafer Commission publishes it’s report; “Marijuana – A Signal of Misunderstanding”. It recommends that personal private possession and non-profit distribution of small amounts should no longer be an offense.

1972 – June: The LeDain Commission publishes its final report. The Commission recommends the repeal of the prohibition on the simple possession of cannabis, along with the repeal of the prohibition of personal cultivation. In 1972, the Trudeau government, through then Health Minister John Munro introduced amendments to the Criminal Code to allow for the imposition of an absolute or conditional discharge for cannabis possession. This did not result in any noticeable change in cannabis prosecutions.

1973: With the passage of HB 2003, Oregon becomes the first state to decriminalize marijuana. Possession of up to an ounce ceases to be a “crime” and instead becomes a “violation” subject to a $100 fine. With the passage of HB 3643 in 1997, Oregon recriminalizes marijuana.

1975: Marijuana is “decriminalized” in Singapore. Over seven ounces gets one the death penalty, but under that amount means one is an addict with “behavioral problems” – not a criminal. Those found guilty are put in a “rehabilitation center” where they are subjected to military training, group therapy, and two years of urine tests after they get sent home. Despite this harsh treatment, “addiction” continues to rise, resulting in even harsher measures from the government in the form of amendments in 1995 to the “Misuse of Drugs Act”.

1975: The Trudeau government introduces Bill S-19, which would have turned a discharge for cannabis possession into a pardon – this proposal dies on the order paper.

1977: Jimmy Carter promises federal “decriminalization” of cannabis to US citizens – acting on the recommendations of Nixon’s Shafer Commission – but does not act on his promise.

1979: Joe Clark suggests that he might decriminalize cannabis and “consider sales”. He never acts on his own suggestion.

1970s: In the six years immediately following Oregon’s decrim, 11 other US states reduce penalties for cannabis possession: Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina and Ohio. The debate over decriminalization within the cannabis community divides the community and drains the movement of energy. That, combined with NORML’s Bourne scandal (it was leaked by Keith Stroup that Peter Bourne – Jimmy Carter’s Drug Czar – attended a NORML party where cocaine was being consumed) provides right-wingers the opportunity to mount a counter-offensive to drug reform. Enter Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

1980: The Trudeau government promises, in it’s throne speech, to reduce the penalties for marijuana use. Then Justice Minister Jean Chretien made similar promises. The promises were never kept.

1987: Australia decriminalizes cannabis possession and small-scale cultivation under the Cannabis Expiation Notice (CEN) scheme. Adults caught growing ten or fewer plants, or possessing under 100 grams of cannabis, or possessing “equipment” for using cannabis would get a fine of between $50 and $150 dollars.

1996: The Canadian Liberal government passes the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. In Nov. of 1995, the Liberals promise their constituents that the new law removes the recording of criminal records for simple marijuana possession – this turns out to be a lie. Also in 1996, some Senators announced their support for “legal pot”. When asked, the Prime Minister said decriminalization would be “difficult to pass” but that he was not “in a position to be judgmental … I’ve had a beer or two in my time”.

1997 – February: Then Reform MP Keith Martin first begins to float his decrim bill – this version including “much higher fines” ($500 to $1000) used to pay for “mandatory treatment programs for pot smokers”. “It’s a bad substance” he claims.

2000: The Ontario Court of Appeal declares the prohibition of the possession of cannabis “unconstitutional” and gives the government a year to amend it. A year later, the laws remained on the books, unamended.

2001 – May: Keith Martin reintroduces his decrim bill – now called C-344. The bill specifies fines of $200, $500 and $1000 dollars for first, second and subsequent offenses. In April of 2002 an amendment moved by MP John Maloney to withdraw Mr. Martin’s and to have the subject matter referred to the House of Commons Special Committee on the Non-Medical Use of Drugs results in Martin grabbing the ceremonial mace in an act of defiance to a symbol of authority – for which he later apologized.

2001 – July: Portugal decriminalizes all drugs. “Addicts” do not get fines or criminal records so long as they go into “treatment”.

2002 – September: The Canadian Senate releases their report entitled “CANNABIS: OUR POSITION FOR A CANADIAN PUBLIC POLICY”. In it they recommend total legalization and regulation of cannabis. Age limits for purchasing cannabis should be set at 16 years old. The report calls decrim “the worst-case scenario, depriving the State of a regulatory tool needed in dealing with the entire production, distribution, and consumption network, and delivering a rather hypocritical message at the same time.” The report also states “decriminalization of use is a weak variation of prohibition, in the long run entailing more disadvantages than advantages.”

2002 – December: The Canadian House of Commons releases their report entitled “Working Together to Redefine Canada’s Drug Strategy”. The report recommends decriminalizing “the possession and cultivation of not more than 30 grams of cannabis for personal use”. Libby Davies’ minority report endorses the Senate report and recommends “non-criminal and non-punitive regulatory approaches for adult use” of cannabis.

2003 – May: Canadian Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien begins to float the idea of decriminalization and fines. “Perhaps I will try it when it will no longer be criminal,” he said in October. “I will have my money for my fine and a joint in the other hand.”

2003 – December: The Canadian Supreme Court upholds the constitutionality of cannabis prohibition, comparing cannabis users to cannibals, pimps, those who abuse animals and those who commit incest. When appellant David Malmo-Levine (me) asks the Court four times to come up with holes in his “harm principle/harm reduction” argument, Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverly Mclaughlin replies “Perhaps we’re all convinced.”

2004 – March: Brazilian President Lula de la Silva decriminalizes possession. Although Brazilian users will no longer go to jail, they will be subject to mandatory treatment.

2004 – May: In Canada, a decriminalization Bill named C-10 is batted around for over a year. In March, the Canadian Cannabis Coalition sends out a press release against Bill C-10, presenting a united front against decrim. Finally, in May 2004, after endless debate, Canada’s decriminalization bill failed, along with another bill that would have criminalized “drugged driving,” when the country called an election and Parliament dissolved.

2004 – November: The Liberal Party, now headed by Paul Martin, revives Bill C-10, now called Bill C-17. It also goes nowhere and dies when the 2006 election is called.

2006: Brazil decriminalizes cannabis possession. Users cannot be imprisoned, but can be forced into treatment, educational programs, or community service.

2007 – October: Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduces Bill C-15 to institute mandatory minimums for pot growers. He reintroduces it in February 2009.

2009 – April: Reform MP-turned-Liberal MP Keith Martin re-reintroduces his decrim bill. It’s the same $200-$500-$1000 bill that he introduced back in 2001. The fines are for one gram or less of cannabis resin (hashish) or 30 grams or less of cannabis buds or leaf. Anything over those amounts and it’s the same old criminal record and fine and/or jail – for five years less one day for possession and trafficking, seven years for cultivation, and life in prison for exportation under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

2009 – June: Mexico decriminalizes drug possession. For small amounts of drugs including tiny amounts of marijuana (five grams or under) there is no punishment for the first two offenses – the third offense involves mandatory treatment. Large amounts now have mandatory minimums attached to them.

2009 – August: Argentina legalizes personal possession of small amounts of marijuana. “Each individual adult is responsible for making decisions freely about their desired lifestyle without state interference,” the Court determined. “Private conduct is allowed unless it constitutes a real danger or causes damage to property or the rights of others.” This echoes the harm principle arguments made by Malmo-Levine and others that failed to persuade the Supreme Court of Canada in 2003.

Due to many examples of the decriminalization of consensual non-drug crimes – sodomy, abortion, prostitution – that resulted in punishment removal, and a few scattered examples of pot decrim that resulted in punishment reduction, some pot activists feel it is a smart strategy – an “incremental step” in the right direction.

Upon reviewing the facts, it becomes apparent that the vast majority of the examples of pot decrim – including all the non-United States examples – are much worse than regular pot criminalization, in that they result in more punishment for more people. And even the few US examples of decrim that result in an actual reduction in penalties act as an “equality delay mechanism” by sending out the message to the world that the cannabis community is not ready for full equality and dignity.

The more I research the concept of the decriminalization of cannabis, the more I find myself agreeing with Hunter S. Thompson – it’s “another trick” … a trick that some cannabis activists – over 30 years later – are still falling for.

To alert those of my fellow activists – and the over-all pot community – who haven’t had months to research the issue, I’ve assembled a collection of myths and facts surrounding cannabis decriminalization. By going public with my within-the-movement critique, some may accuse me of making personal attacks against fellow activists. The goal of this article is to re-orient the cannabis movement, not damage individuals within it. I actually deeply love these pro-decrim activists – I appreciate their efforts and sacrifices and admire what they have done in other areas of drug law reform – I just happen to think they are wrong on this one tactical point.

Definitions of useful terms

Scapegoat: Originally called a “pharmakos” (where we get the word “pharmacy” from) the scapegoat was a slave, a cripple or a criminal who was chosen and expelled from the community at times of disaster (famine, invasion or plague) when a symbolic “purification” was needed. The word “scapegoat” has come to mean a person, often innocent, who is blamed and punished for the sins, crimes, or sufferings of others, generally as a way of distracting attention from the real causes.

Decriminalization: The act of redefining an activity that was formerly considered a “crime” to be “not a crime”. Decriminalization sometimes results in this activity being subject to “non-criminal punishments” that are worse than the “criminal punishments”, and sometimes results in the activity not being punished at all.

Legalization: The act of redefining an activity that was formerly considered a “crime” to be “not a crime”, with no punishments involved. Regulation may or may not replace the previous prohibition.

Re-Legalization: A reminder that some activity used to be legal before, became criminalized, and ought to be returned to it’s former legal status.

Regulation: Certain rules that surround an activity. Some punishments for rule-breaking.

Over-regulation: When the rules surrounding an allowed activity are unreasonable and/or harmful.

Under-regulation: When there are not enough rules surrounding an activity to render it harmless-to-others.

Crime: Derived from the Greek verb “Krinein” – “to decide”. From Black’s Law Dictionary: “A crime may be defined to be any act done in violation of those duties which an individual owes to the community, and for the breach of which the law has provided that the offender shall make satisfaction to the public. A crime or public offense is an act committed or omitted in violation of a law forbidding or commanding it, and to which is annexed, upon conviction, either, or in combination, of the following punishments: death; imprisonment; fine; removal from office; or disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust or profit.”

Summary Conviction: In Canadian and US law, summary convictions are less serious criminal offenses, involving maximum jail terms of six months.

Indictment: A serious criminal offense in Canada and other countries with a common law heritage.

Felony: A serious criminal offense in the USA – involving at least a year in prison for punishment.

Misdemeanor: Misdemeanors are still criminal acts (a term mainly used by the USA) but are of the least serious variety – involving up to one year in a county jail – as opposed to “infractions” which are generally considered to be “non-criminal” violations.

Treatment: Could mean anything from group therapy to piss tests to community service to army training to brainwashing. Treatment can either be voluntary or involuntary. It is usually manifested as an involuntary affront to human dignity in the form of an irrational attack on an intelligent preference for autonomy and botanical drugs which usually results from a similar intelligent distain for subjugation and prescribed and/or synthetic drugs. It occasionally involves a voluntary request for assistance with mitigating physical withdrawal symptoms and formulating a plan of desired abstinence from – in almost all cases – hard drugs.

Hard drugs: A drug with serious physical withdrawal symptoms and/or possible risk of death. Alcohol, crack, cocaine, heroin, tobacco, crystal meth, datura, OxyContin, would all be considered hard drugs by this author.

Soft drugs: drugs with less serious withdrawal symptoms and/or with few or no fatalities expected. Coffee, tea, cannabis, magic mushrooms, LSD, salvia, DMT, coca leaves, poppy tea, chocolate would all be considered soft drugs by this author.

Myth #1: If the cannabis community has some cannabis activists calling for incremental steps towards dignity and equality – such as replacing jail with fines – and offers their oppressors a range of policy choices to choose from – it will result in progress.

“There is a lot of debate about whether an incremental or all-or-nothing approach is best. I don’t think there is a direct answer and probably the best way to make progress is to have people advocating for a variety of policy choices along the regulatory spectrum.”

Facts #1: Most scapegoats move directly from oppression to equality “overnight” after years of standing united for total equality without compromise. If one of the options given to an oppressor is a fatal compromise, the oppressor will chose that option. The one example of a scapegoat other than cannabis users who have moved from “harsh punishments” to “less harsh punishments” are witches, and they STILL haven’t fully legalized witchcraft in over 500 years:

When they decriminalized sodomy in the US in 2003, they didn’t replace criminalization with a fine system. (1) In fact, no country or state has replaced sodomy criminalization with sodomy fines. (2) When they repealed the US abortion law to allow for therapeutic abortions in Roe vs. Wade in 1973, they didn’t replace criminalization with a fine system. (3) When New Zealand decriminalized prostitution in 2003, they didn’t replace criminalization with a fine system. (4) Somebody please correct me if I’m wrong, but in all the modern cases of decriminalization – abortion, breastfeeding in public, drugs, euthanasia, homosexuality, prostitution, public nudity and pornography, the only example of replacing criminalization with a system of fines are in drug cases – specifically marijuana cases. (5)

The only other example I could find of “punishment-switching” in scapegoat history was the witchcraft laws of England – hardly a good model for the cannabis movement to follow – as it took witches 334 years to eliminate the death penalty and another 233 years to remove the possibility of prison. (6) Witches can still be charged for fraud and fined. (7)

Myth #2: The Single Convention Treaty prevents any country from fully legalizing cannabis – decriminalization is the best we can hope for until all 108 countries amend or withdraw from the treaties all at once:

“Several groups in the United States are loudly agitating to liberalize controls, and, in fact, to legalize it’s use. In the convention it is very specific that we must prevent it’s misuse. If the United States becomes a party to the 1961 convention we will be able to use our treaty obligations to resist legalized use of marijuana. … Now, 108 nations would have to amend it or denounce it. But the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom are the only three countries trying to legalize marijuana.”
– Harry Anslinger, quoted in Larry Sloman’s 1998 “Reefer Madness”, pp. 227, 248

“In his brief to Cabinet, national health and welfare minister John Munro listed several reasons to justify the rejection of legalization: among them he cited potential health risks, a possible increase in the number of users, and Canada’s obligations under the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.”
“Not This Time – Canadians, Public Policy, and the Marijuana Question 1961 – 1975”, Marcel Martel, p. 184, see also pp. 171, 205, 207

“The (2009 World Drug Report) report, released at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on “World Drug Day,” also puts to rest concerns that decriminalization doesn’t comply with international treaties, which prevent countries from legalizing drugs.”

Facts #2: The drug treaties have some sovereignty exceptions you could drive a Dutch pot café through and other medical and scientific exceptions that nobody has attempted to use yet. The treaties can be amended or withdrawn from without penalty. Human rights treaties may very well trump drug control treaties if they are ever weighed in court:

According to more than one leading legal expert on the subject, the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances and the 1988 Convention on Prohibition Against Trafficking are – on the surface – all about prohibiting the sale of cannabis and other “dangerous” drugs, but in reality these treaties are rife with exceptions that would allow for almost any type of legal cannabis cultivation and distribution model to exist. (8) The most surprising fact about the treaties is that Holland has signed all of them. (9) By arguing that “expediency” (meaning “it just works better this way”) is part of Dutch sovereignty, and sovereignty is explicitly guaranteed in all the treaties, Holland has determined it can have as many cannabis cafes as it wants without having to amend or withdraw from the treaties. Arguably all countries are as sovereign as Holland and expediency applies in every case – but Holland is the only country that as stated so publicly. Arguably Holland could apply the sovereignty/expediency principle to cultivation and importation, but they have yet to do so.

Article 4 .c of the 1961 Treaty specifies that “Subject to the provisions of this Convention, to limit exclusively to medical and scientific purposes the production, manufacture, export, import, distribution of, trade in, use and possession of drugs.” (10) Isn’t all cannabis use “medical”? Joints don’t magically become “non-medicine” in mid air when a sick person passes one to a healthy person. Arguably, all it would take to legalize all cannabis production, manufacture, export, import, distribution, use and possession in Canada is an acknowledgement by the courts and/or Parliament that “recreation” or “social” drug use – what is currently seen as “non-medicinal” drug use – is actually a form of “preventive medicine” in that it’s an informal treatment for stress, depression and fatigue.

Article 47 of the 1961 Treaty allows a party to propose an amendment to the Convention. Article 46 allows a party to withdraw its consent from the Convention by formally denouncing it. There are no penalties specified for these actions in either of these articles. (11)

According to Glenn Gilmour of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy;

“In addition to these international conventions dealing with drug use, there are a number of other international human rights conventions to which Canada is a signatory. It is essential to keep those in mind as well. … The argument would be that, consistent with our heritage as a people who believe in fundamental rights, the provisions of these international human rights treaties should be taken into account in determining the full scope to which we should be entering into drug conventions; international trafficking treaties and the like.” (12)

Mr. Gilmore mentions the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966 as one of the treaties that Canada should use to temper the Drug control treaties with. Arguably there are passages within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights treaty of 1948, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide treaty of 1948 and The United Nations 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery treaty that also may outweigh the drug control treaties – or at least permit a reevaluation of Canada’s obligations under the drug control treaties.

Myth #3: Decriminalization of cannabis would put pressure on the government “move in the right direction” and to “eventually” fully legalize cannabis in a short period of time:

“The bill isn’t perfect, but it’s a move in the right direction. If we want out members of Parliament to vote against C-15 and move towards decriminalization and eventually legalization, we need to tell them so.”

Facts #3: Decriminalization is not the road to legalization, and moving from criminalization to decriminalization isn’t necessarily a move in the right direction. The cannabis community was assured that decriminalization would lead to legalization in the United States over 30 years ago and despite eleven states decriminalizing, it still hasn’t happened. Some of the most oppressive anti-dealer and anti-grower drug laws in the USA and Mexico have been attached to “decrim” bills. Some of the most pro-drugwar countries in the world have decriminalized simple possession. A country that adopts decrim may be attempting to delay reform and may even be becoming less tolerant:

In 1975, the editors at High Times magazine assured their readers that;

“…taxing marijuana would be a major source of income for a tight-budgeted government. Once marijuana is decriminalized (about three years, maximum) a tremendous upsurge in marijuana usage will result as the paranoia vanishes. The staggering amount of marijuana traffic this will generate will create inevitable pressure to legalize dope entirely, grow it at home, and tax it.” (13)

The very next year, High Times reported that NORML director Keith Stroup “thinks decriminalization will be firmly established by 1980 and a regulatory system will inevitably be established within five to ten years.” (14)

In April of 1977, Mississippi became the first Southern State to decriminalize. It was only a $250 fine for a first offense of under-30 grams possession, but those who passed the law used it as an opportunity to pass draconian sentencing for over-30 gram possession and all other cannabis offenses. (15) Whenever US decrim was attempted on a national level, it was always in “Trojan Horse” form, with attached provisos such as the suspension of Habeas Corpus and 15 year sentences for being in possession of a “smuggled substance”, or the doubling of cultivation maximums, or mandatory minimums. (16) In an attempt to attract right-wing voters in the 1980 presidential election, Carter stopped talking about decrim and pushed through a model anti-paraphernalia law for each state to adopt. (17) The lesson of the Carter-era decrim effort was that unless you go all the way and fully regulate, smaller reforms can be watered-down and/or removed later on.

In Singapore, personal pot possession has been decriminalized since 1975. Cannabis “addicts”, though arrested, are not given “criminal status” – that are seen as “people with behavioral problems”. There is a mandatory death sentence for being found in possession of over 500 grams of cannabis, but 15 to 499 grams gets you the cane, and mandatory “treatment.” (18)

Mexico has a similarly deceptive form of decrim on the books. It contains Trojan Horse mandatory minimums – 10 months to 3 years – for more than 5,000 grams of cannabis. (19) Under these rules, most growers and dealers would have to do jail time. The state is anticipating such an increase in incarceration as a result of the bill that it is building 12 new prisons. (20) The new law stipulates there is no fine for under five grams of cannabis (an amount smaller than the average purchase) so long as the “addict” receives “education” or “treatment”. The bill was supported by Bush’s drug czar John Walters. (21)

Myth #4: Decriminalization in 11 US states led to a decrease in arrests in those states and/or a decrease in overall arrests in the whole country.

“Decriminalization would remove the consumer from the criminal justice system, and eliminate nearly 90% of the current marijuana arrests in my country.”
– Keith Stroup, “Beyond Prohibition: Legal Cannabis in Canada” May 8th, 2004

Facts #4: Cannabis arrests skyrocketed in the US immediately following 11 US states decriminalizing in the 1970’s. Arrests have skyrocketed in many places after decriminalizing cannabis such as Walworth County and New York City.

According to NORML USA, 30% of the US population live under some form of decrim. (22) According to a 2005 report commissioned by NORML;

“In 1970 there was an estimated 188,682 arrests for the drug – by 2003 the number had increased to 755,000. So it’s clear that despite the decriminalization effort, the chances of a marijuana user being arrested have significantly increased.” (23)

In 2007, the total number of people arrested in the US for cannabis offenses was 872,720. (24)

According to cannabis activist/Yippie Ben Masel, when Walworth County, Wisconsin decriminalized, arrests shot up from 50 per Grateful Dead show to 900 per show. (25) This increase probably has something to do with the $454 dollars profit made by the county for each decrim ticket issued. (26) 900 multiplied by 454 is $408,600 dollars. The proposed fine for Canadian decrim is $1000 for a third offence – more than double the incentive found within the Walworth-style decrim. The obvious lesson for Canadian cannabis activists to be learned from the Walworth County experience is that decrim with high fines are dangerous to communities with high concentrations of cannabis users such as Toronto and Vancouver, where the police have an impossible-to-ignore cash incentive to selectively target these high concentrations – they become the “low-hanging fruit” of the drug war.

Click to enlarge.Click to enlarge.Another lesson is to be found within New York decrim. In New York, possession of 25 grams or less of cannabis is a civil citation punishable by up to a $250 fine and a $100 court surcharge; stricter punishments exist for sale, cultivation, or subsequent offenses. If found in a public place with marijuana burning or in public view, offender can be charged with a misdemeanor, fined $500, and incarcerated up to 3 months. (27)

Despite talk of “civil citations”, from 1997 to 2006 the NYPD arrested and jailed more than 353,000 people for simple possession – eleven times more marijuana arrests than in the previous decade! The rest of the country only experienced a two-to-threefold increase in arrests. (28)

According to the 1994 report entitled “The City of New York Commission to Investigate Allegations of Police Corruption”;

“[Arrests] were sometimes conveniently timed to generate overtime pay for the arresting officer who typically took hours beyond his regular tour of duty to process the arrest. ‘Collars-for-Dollars’ is a practice widely known to officers, police supervisors, and prosecutors alike … Besides overtime pay, high arrest numbers are often a factor considered for coveted assignments for patrol officers and supervisors alike.” (29)

According to a report entitled “The Marijuana Arrest Crusade in New York City: Racial Bias in Police Policy 1997-2007” by Prof. Harry G. Levine and Deborah Peterson Small;

“New York State decriminalized marijuana possession in 1977, making it a violation like speeding or driving through a stop light. When police officers coerce or intimidate people into showing marijuana in the open, though, they are able to classify it as a misdemeanor and arrest for it.” (30)

Myth #5: There is reason to believe that – unlike the “net widening” experience of South Australia – decriminalization in Canada would lead to a reduction in arrests in Canada:

“… by freeing up the vast resources which criminalization squanders on arrests, prosecutions and imprisonment and instead devoting those resources to treatment, harm-reduction and education programs, few things are more effective in reducing drug-related problems than decriminalization, and nothing exacerbates those problems more than criminalization.”
– Glenn Greenwald, Salon.

Facts #5: There is reason to believe that an increase in arrests in Canada would result from the “net widening” aspect of decrim similar to that which occurred in South Australia, Portugal and it certain parts of the United States. The Canadian government has stated in public and in private that they expect and desire “net widening” to occur:

It is a well-recognized fact that the form decrim took in South Australia resulted in a “two and a half times” increase in pot possession offences between 1987 and 1996, “because police found it so much easier to hand out an instant ticket”. (31)

Under the 1987 Cannabis Expiation Notice (CEN) scheme, adults caught growing ten or fewer plants, or possessing under 100 grams of cannabis, or possessing “equipment” for using cannabis would get a fine of between $50 and $150 dollars. (32) Almost half of those ticketed ended up not paying their fine due to financial reasons and ended up with criminal records. (33) At the beginning, jail was also a penalty for unpaid fines. This later switched to property seizures, community service and suspended driver’s licenses. (34)

As cannabis activists pointed out back in 2002 (35), the maximum fine under the currently proposed Canadian decrim – for a third offense – ($1000) is nearly seven times as large as the maximum under South Australian decrim ($150). This translates into an almost certain greater rate of default in Canada. In Canada, the non-payment of fines for other offenses usually results in jail time at a rate of one day in jail for every $70 worth of fine. This means two weeks in jail for anyone who can’t afford to pay their third possession ticket.

In Portugal, “the number of cases referred to the administrative process has increased slowly and more or less steadily” since decrim began in 2001, suggesting that “the officers are issuing citations at least at the same rate, if not more enthusiastically, than when the law was first enacted”. (36)

In the United States, “despite changing attitudes, despite reform laws in a dozen states, the arrests continued to mount, lives continued to be damaged, and the war continued to escalate.” (37) A substantial part of this arrest increase could be accounted for by the selective enforcement/cash incentive techniques exposed in Walworth County and New York outlined in the Facts #4 section of this article.

Granted, there are a few examples of decrim found within the US where there are no penalties for unpaid fines – such as that of Boston. This system results in “net-narrowing”. (38) But these examples are few and far between, and have absolutely no resemblance to the decrim of the vast majority of the US states, of Australia, of Portugal, of Mexico, of Singapore and of the form of decrim being evaluated in Canada.

Further, these decrim bills aren’t “net-widening” by accident – their architects are designing them with “net-widening” in mind. For example, in Australia analysts have admitted that;

“Indeed, it can be argued that [marijuana decriminalization]could lead to an increased deterrent effect, as law enforcement would be less reluctant to charge offenders when the punishment is more suited to the crime.” (39)

In Canada, the House of Commons recommended decrim back in December of 2002. To launch their report, Chairperson M.P. Paddy Torsney stated;

“A ticket would be more immediate and a police officer would be more likely to write a ticket. Right now the laws are not evenly enforced, often police will turn a blind eye, which teaches disrespect for the law. We want fines to be rendered. … There is an uneven application of the law. In many places the police warn an individual and don’t charge. We think, actually, with what we’re proposing a person with a small amount will be more likely to suffer a consequence for breaking the law. So we actually think we’re being a little tougher on people by suggesting that there would be a fine for the breaking of the law and police officers would be more likely to write that ticket rather than it walk away.” (40)

Just in case anyone cares to argue that this is just the bluster of someone who secretly wants to go easier on cannabis users but has to sell the idea to the police and other conservative members of Canadian society, there’s also the secret internal documents uncovered by reporter Dan Gardner:

“The draft Cabinet submission notes all this, and concludes that decriminalization in Canada “will likely increase enforcement.” Quite true. But the astonishing thing is that this conclusion is listed under “Advantages.” (41)

There is clearly a mountain of evidence showing that Canadian decrim as proposed would result in net-widening. There is zero evidence to the contrary.

Myth #6: There is reason to believe a quick jump to legalization would allow for a corporate monopoly of the cannabis economy:

“NORML chief Keith Stroup, a decrim supporter, opposed legalization ‘for three years or so,’ in favor of a current push toward decriminalization until a consumer-based distribution system could be arranged. Stroup argued that corporate giants would devour and destroy the dope market.”
– High Times, March 1977, p. 31

“I’m not so sure I would want to jump into legalization tomorrow. I want to know how it’s going to work. I want to keep large commercial interests from taking it over.”
– Larry Schott, National Director of NORML, HiLife magazine, Vol. 1 #12, 1979 p. 94

“Decriminalization would make my business better than ever. But legalization, I don’t know.”
– Tom Forcade, HiLife magazine, Vol. 2, #1, 1979, p. 46

Facts #6: A corporate cannabis monopoly is only possible under cannabis criminalization or decrim. The minimally-regulated “no punishment” market in Holland did not result in a corporate monopoly or even a non-corporate monopoly. There is currently a monopoly on legal cannabis medicine in Canada – in the form of Heath Canada’s PPS cannabis and GW/Bayer’s Sativex – that will only be undone by re-legalization and reasonable regulations:

Cannabis is a labor-intensive crop rather than a capital-intensive crop and thus is resistant to monopoly in a legal market. Unlike coffee beans – which require huge importation costs – or alcohol and cigarettes – which require large manufacturing costs – all you need to be in the cannabis business is access to sunlight, soil, seeds and some organic fertilizer … the initial investment is within the grasp of most people. As a result of this easy-to-access market, there are currently 740 cannabis “coffee-shops” in Holland (42), and less than a dozen of these are franchises. (43)

It has been reported by the Canadian Press as recently as May 2009 that Health Canada plans to “phase out personal production” of medical marijuana. (44) If successful with their plans, this would leave Health Canada’s PPS and GW/Bayer’s Sativex tincture as the only legal sources of medical marijuana in Canada.

Myth # 7: Canadian pot decrim would eliminate demand and the black market:

“This bill would decriminalize the simple possession of marijuana under 30 grams and also the possession of two or fewer plants. It would sever the ties between the casual user and organized crime gangs. It would eliminate demand for their product and significantly undermine the financial underpinnings of organized crime gangs in Canada.”
– Dr. Keith Martin, MP, April 3, 2009 press release –

“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.” – Keith Martin, May 15, 2009 Globe and Mail article

Fact #7: Canadian pot decrim would perpetuate the black market.

Those who grow cannabis do so regardless of the type of penalties or resources that threaten them. Demand remains unaffected by drug laws, no matter how severe or how much resources are marshaled against suppliers. Even if demand increases under legalization, proper use could eliminate abuse and cannabis could be a substitute for more dangerous medicines – increased demand could be a good thing.

In the proposed Canadian decrim bill, under 30 grams and five plants wouldn’t be “legal” – it would still be confiscated and subjected to fines – $200 for a first offense, $500 for a second offense, and $1000 for a third offense. (45) If at any time someone’s plants were confiscated, they would have to go back to the black market in order to get high.

Even Holland hasn’t eliminated the cannabis black market entirely – a result of their reluctance to legalize cultivation. (46) China has executed scores of drug traffickers since the early 1990’s with no evidence that such practices have reduced drug trafficking. (47) In 2003, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized “careful use can mitigate harmful effects” when it comes to cannabis use. (48) There is evidence to suggest that moderate cannabis use can assist with reducing or eliminating or mitigating the negative effects of the use of crack, opiates and alcohol. (49)

Myth #8: Canadian Decrim will remove users from the courts and place them in a system that is focused on their health and well-being.

“To realize meaningful change on our city streets, we must decriminalize the possession of small amounts of pot. This will cause drug abuse to be addressed in the public health system, rather than through the courts.” – Keith Martin, April 1, 2009, press release

Facts #8: Fines are unhealthy in that they take away money from people who might otherwise spend that money on food, shelter, medicine, vacations, dental work and other healthy things. Canadian decrim will give users non-criminal records that will follow them around and punish them as criminal records would. Canadian decrim will result in people going to jail for unpaid fines. Fines, non-criminal records and jail for unpaid finds has nothing to do with the “public health system”:

For evidence that Canadian decrim involves excessive fines, see Facts #7. For evidence that Canadian decrim will give users non-criminal records, see Facts #9. For evidence that Canadian decrim will result in people going to jail for unpaid fines, see Facts #14.

Myth #9: Canadian Decrim will eliminate criminal records:

“Bill C-359 was introduced this spring to accomplish these goals. Under this bill, a person who is caught with less than 30 grams of marijuana or less than two plants would receive a fine instead of going through the expensive court system and receiving a criminal record, or even incarceration if found guilty.” – Keith Martin, June 16, 2009,

Facts #9: Canadian Decrim has a series of fines that increase each time you get a ticket. In order for the fines to increase each time some record of previous fines will be kept in a database that must be easily accessible by Canadian police and US customs officials. People are routinely barred from the US for a cannabis arrest – never mind a conviction:

The practice of handing out fines that increase for repeat offenders is not unique to the proposed Canadian decrim bill. New York has a similar fine system, but the first offence is only $100, the second offense is $200 and the third offense is $250 plus up to 15 days in jail. (50)

In Canada, arrest records are kept in the CPIC, the central registry of the RCMP. (51) On November 15th of 1995, bill C-8, which was to become the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, was supposed to have eliminated criminal records for simple possession … at least according to the front page of nearly every major newspaper in Canada. (52) This was proven false the next day when Vancouver Sun Reporter Lindsay Kines interviewed an immigration lawyer, who told him of clients who had been barred entrance to the US because of arrests that had not even led to convictions. “Even though they’re not going to be fingerprinted, I just think that the information lines are so open that information is shared holus-bolus,” he said.

Kines also interviewed a lawyer working for the US Immigration service, who said that border guards are still able to get information on a person’s criminal past, and that lying to a border guard is a federal offense. (53) Unfortunately, his expose on bill C-8 only showed up in one newspaper – it was buried in the back pages – and bill C-8 became law.

Myth #10: The 2002 Senate Report recommended decrim:

“In 2002, the Senate Report on Illegal Drugs called for the decriminalization of the simple possession of marijuana.”
– Keith Martin, June 16, 2009, –

“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.
– Keith Martin, May 15, 2009, Globe & Mail –

Fact #10: The 2002 Senate Report “went further” than the House of Commons decriminalization recommendations and recommended full legalization, stating that decrim was “the worst case scenario.”

According to the 2002 Senate Report entitled “CANNABIS: OUR POSITION FOR A CANADIAN PUBLIC POLICY”; “Some say that decriminalization is a step in the right direction, one that gives society time to become accustomed to cannabis, to convince opponents that chaos will not result, to adopt effective preventive measures. We believe however that this approach is in fact the worst case scenario, depriving the State of a necessary regulatory tool for dealing with the entire production, distribution, and consumption network, and delivering hypocritical messages at the same time. In our opinion, the data we have collected on cannabis and its derivatives provide sufficient grounds for our general conclusion that the regulation of the production, distribution and consumption of cannabis, inasmuch as it is part of an integrated and adaptable public policy, is best able to respond to the principles of autonomy, governance that fosters human responsibility and limitation of penal law to situations where there is demonstrable harm to others.” (54)

Back in 2004, Canadian cannabis activists were united in support of the Senate’s position and against decrim, and attempted to educate the public regarding the difference between the two positions. (55) This may have been a factor in the Government’s inability to push decrim through. The cannabis activist community must re-unify against decrim today, or we may discover the hard way just how much influence we have when it comes to the government’s ability to make proposed policies into realities.

Myth #11: Portuguese decrim resulted in most people not being penalized in any way:

“At the recommendation of a national commission charged with addressing Portugal’s drug problem, jail time was replaced with the offer of therapy. … Under Portugal’s new regime, people found guilty of possessing small amounts of drugs are sent to a panel consisting of a psychologist, social worker and legal adviser for appropriate treatment (which may be refused without criminal punishment), instead of jail.”,8599,1893946,00.html

Fact #11: Portuguese decrim results in the “Dissuasion Commission” requiring those arrested for simple possession to choose between various humiliations including but not limited to fines and “treatment” for one’s intelligent preference to cannabis over other drugs:

In Glenn Greenwald’s 2009 report for the Cato Institute on Portuguese decriminalization entitled “DRUG DECRIMINALIZATION IN PORTUGAL – LESSONS FOR CREATING FAIR AND SUCCESSFUL DRUG POLICIES”, the author states;

“In 2005, there were 3,192 commission rulings. Of those, 83 percent suspended the proceeding; 15 percent imposed actual sanctions; and 2.5 percent resulted in absolution.” (56)

This sounds like 83% receive no punishment whatsoever. But careful reading reveals that “Dissuasion Commissions are directed by Article 11(2) to “provisionally suspend proceedings” – meaning to impose no sanction – where an alleged offender with no prior offenses is found to be an addict but “agrees to undergo treatment”. (57) In other words, those 83 % are not escaping punishment, they are being forced into treatment! According to the report, only 2.5 percent of those caught possessing cannabis escape punishment entirely. The report states;

“Non-addicted consumers may be sentenced to payment of a fine … between 25 euros and the minimum national wage … While the Dissuasion Commissions are not authorized to mandate treatment, they can make the suspension of sanctions conditioned on the offender seeking treatment. … In theory, the Dissuasion Commissions are able to impose on offenders found to be addicts a wider range of sanctions under Article 17 including suspension of the right to practice a licensed profession (doctor, lawyer, taxi driver); a ban on visiting high-risk locals (nightclubs); a ban on associating with specified individuals; requiring periodic reports to the commission to show there is no ongoing addiction or abuse; prohibitions on travel abroad; termination of public benefits for subsidies or allowances, or a mere oral warning.” (58)

The report goes on to say that:

– Doctors are encouraged to act as informants for the police (although this is rare).
– Giving “addicts” a choice of a fine or treatment for what may be an intelligent preference is called “harm-reductionistic orientation”.
– The aim of Portuguese decrim is to “reduce drug abuse and usage”.
– This report uses the terms “use” “abuse” and “addiction” interchangeably.
– This report makes no mention of “medicinal marijuana” or “beneficial usage”.

Clearly, Portuguese decriminalization is neither “fair” nor “successful” as a drug policy if one sees cannabis as a preventive or palliative medicine and human autonomy as something of value. There is no evidence anywhere of a concerted effort to thwart this Portuguese decrim system and resist the “Dissuasion Commission’s advice”. This isn’t surprising, as anyone who attempted to organize the Portuguese pot community against this system would most likely be attacked by a much more streamlined and efficient – and less distracted – justice system, and would not get as much help from professionals who could afford to pay the fine.

Myth #12: Governments have listened to the input of activists and being “involved” in the drafting of the decrim bill requires endorsement of the bill:

This is another common misconception I’ve heard many times from decrim-supporting cannabis activists.

Facts #12: The Canadian Government has ignored scientific opinion ever since the Le Dain Commission in 1972 and ignored public opinion since the pubic began to favor legalization in 1997. None of the major political parties have ever demonstrated any willingness to let activists “shape” policy at any time in Canadian history. Being “involved” in drafting the decrim bill does not require the endorsement of the bill. There are clear signs that the bill is a “bad bill” but this has not resulted in any activism against the bill so far in the Canadian activist community:

In 1972, the Le Dain Commission recommended “the repeal of the prohibition against the simple possession of cannabis”. (59) The Canadian government – or elements within it – have repeatedly suggested cannabis law reform was right around the corner. Reform was suggested in 1970, 1972, 1975, 1979, 1980, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, (60) and 2004 (61) – but each time the promises have turned out to be lies, and the drug laws stayed the same or got worse.

In 1997, The Globe & Mail reported that, according to Angus Reid and CTV, 51% of Canadians felt that possession should “not be a criminal offense”, and that when it was “intended for health purposes only … 83 per cent believe it should be legal.” The news story did not mention fines. It is unlikely the survey mentioned fines either, as it is counter-intuitive that 83% of Canadians would support fining medical users – or punishing them in any way. (62)

More recent polling from Angus Reid has placed support for “legalization” between 51% and 55%. (63) One has to wonder how large a majority must exist before the Canadian government stops ignoring it.

This author has been unable to find any evidence of any level of the Canadian government being open to advice from cannabis activists, except perhaps from elements within the New Democratic Party. Even then, activists have had efforts to get motions passed at NDP federal conventions quashed, ads have been blocked and candidates have been asked to remove themselves from elections due to images of them smoking cannabis and using other drugs have surfaced on the internet. (64)

Attempts by this author to expose the proposed Canadian cannabis decrim bill as a sham – or even encourage activists to withdraw support for the bill – have so far failed. This author has had his submissions of evidence of the downside of decrim removed from an activist website with no reason given other than “editorial control”. Some Canadian cannabis activists are currently in support of the bill despite it having no clear advantage to Canadian cannabis users and possessing aspects that threaten the existence of the movement and the community itself. In my judgment, most of the Canadian cannabis activist elite (the power-brokers of the movement – those with money and influence) have so far been incapable of objectively evaluating whether Keith Martin’s proposed decrim bill is “good” or “bad”.

Myth #13: The number of arrests for simple possession in metropolitan areas such as Vancouver and Toronto is due to the whims of individual police officers:

Another misconception I’ve argued against in private correspondence with some prominent cannabis activists.

Fact #13: The extent of police discretion is determined not by individual officers but rather by government policy:

The effect that the federal government had on police discretion with regards to cannabis possession was outlined in a Vancouver Province article dated June 18, 1995;

“QUIT FILING DRUG-POSSESSION CHARGES, VANCOUVER COPS TOLD … Simple drug possession in Vancouver will no longer be prosecuted, under new federal government guidelines … “we have more drug cases than we can deal with,” explained Tony Dohm, of the justice department.” (65) One could only conclude that a similar directive from the justice department instructing the VPD to aggressively hand out decrim fines would not be ignored – especially given the wide support punishing cannabis users has among most police chiefs. (66)

Because decrim tickets will be handed out according to the wishes of the politicians rather than at the discretion of the police it is likely that a change in policy will result in a change in how the police handle simple possession of cannabis. Currently in Vancouver and Toronto the police do not place a high priority on processing simple possession cases – this may very well change under cannabis decrim.

Myth #14: There is no reason to believe that Canadian decrim will result in people going to jail for unpaid fines for cannabis possession at a greater rate than they were going to jail for actual cannabis possession.

The author has failed to find a public statement by cannabis activists to this effect. This myth was taken from private correspondence between the author and a prominent activist within the cannabis community.

Fact #14: Unlike a small minority of the US decrim laws that involve no penalty for unpaid fines, we in Canada can expect to see large fines, jail for unpaid fines or other serious punishments. The last time somebody had the ability to suggest amending a Canadian decrim bill to ensure nobody went to jail for unpaid fines the concept was shot down. “Treatment” has also been suggested as a penalty for unpaid fines. The penalties in Australia for unpaid fines was at first jail, and then switched to property seizure, community service or suspension of a driver’s license. Canadian fines will be much greater than those of South Australia, so the Canadian incarceration rate or rate of alternative serious punishments will likely be greater than that of South Australia.

As was mentioned earlier in this article, the proposed fines under Canadian decrim currently stand at $200, $500 and $1000 for a first, second and third offense. When MP Libby Davies proposed a special provision that would guarantee no imprisonment on default of fines for an earlier version of the bill back in 2004, it was not accepted. (67) In 2003, Liberal MP Hedy Fry suggested that repeat offenders under decrim should be forced into “treatment and rehabilitation”. (68)

In South Australia, the penalties for unpaid fines was at first jail, and later evolved into having goods seized, community service, or have their motor drivers license suspended rather than be placed in custody. (69)

As was noted by Canadian cannabis activists back in 2002;

“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. …These steps are not being taken to liberate us, but are last-ditch efforts by our oppressors to maintain their persecution of our favorite plant and those who love it.” (70)

* * *

Will decrim split today’s cannabis law reform movement in Canada as it did with the cannabis reform movement in the US in the 1970’s and 1980’s?

“Many people in the marijuana movement see decrim as a sham. Some see the NORML lawyers as opportunists, with political-bureaucratic aspirations.”
-Reefer Madness, Larry Sloman, 1998, St. Martin’s Press, p. 353

The last time the cannabis community honestly addressed the decrim issue was 1979. The rank and file rejected the leadership’s endorsement of “Trojan horse” national decrim and was forced to publicly endorse full legalization for the first time ever. The problem (as far as I can see it) was that the leadership was still allowed to advocate for decrim at the same time as full legalization – this sent a mixed message to the rest of the world – we were all still “sort of punishment worthy” – just not as much.

Nobody doubts pot activism hit a lull in the 1980’s in both Canada and the US. It wasn’t just the fact that NORML revealed to the press that Carter’s Drug Czar hung around cocaine parties. It wasn’t just Nancy Reagan. Take a look at the quotes from the time period and ask yourself if our leadership ignoring most of these concerns about decrim wasn’t enough to take the steam out of the rank and file:

“Some of Stroup’s advisers, notably Harvard’s Dr. Grinspoon, wanted to reject the decriminalization concept. It was not intellectually honest, they said: If marijuana was indeed harmless, it should be legal. These purists felt the commission should have called for legalization and put forth a plan for its implementation. “

“I think that what happened to these 42 people points at the other side of decriminalization in Ohio. A state where you can have your 3 ounces, but they have all these Catch-22 traditional laws. If you have your 3 ounces in the house, that can be keeping a house, that’s a felony. If you roll up a big joint and hand it to somebody, that can be trafficking. That’s a felony. Of the 42 people, 39 of them were busted with nothing but marijuana. Two of them had LSD, and now they’re in … jail. One guy had a PCP factory. He got off, because the cops busted it before it was PCP. Of the 39 people who got busted just with pot, 5 of those were charged with felonies, the other 34 just plea-bargained to misdemeanors. That’s the big thing about decriminalization from the point of view of poor folks, that it is merely an administrative procedure to allow more efficient law enforcement. … The point is, that in Ohio, from the standpoint of the average freak, decrim isn’t better, it’s worse.”
-Steve Conliff, “1977 NORML Formal – Does Decrim Really Work?”, Blacklisted News, p. 276

“My name is Gatewood Galbraith from Kentucky, Kentucky Marijuana Feasibility Study. We stand for legal marijuana. What is needed is a full and lengthy discussion of the flaws of decriminalization stands … When you say it’s going to be next year before you even talk about these things, it is an immediate sacrifice of another 416,000 arrests across the country while you sit around and try to get some sort of a statement together. Decriminalization doesn’t discuss the back issues of smuggling, adulterated products, consumer rip-offs that happen every day pot smokers. It doesn’t talk about the basic civil liberties that marijuana is used as an instrument upon. Decriminalization doesn’t deal with selective enforcement by police officials; allows the trampling of constitutional rights; allows the people to spend time in jail over their relationship with a plant. … The Single Convention Treaty could easily be nullified. There is no reason to stand for this. Every country that has signed that has broken the rule, and it’s legal tradition that when treaties are broken, people can resign the treaty. The Single Convention is not the end-all argument for decriminalization. Decriminalization has shortcomings in every way. It doesn’t address the basic issues. The longer NORML stands on it, the longer it’s going to take to educate the public about what the basic issues are going to be, and are right now. And NORML’s not doing a damn thing. We don’t hear about them in the South. What the hell are they doing with $4,000,000 operating budget, sitting around throwing nice beautiful conventions in great hotels, when people are going to jail every day for marijuana and NORML can do something about it, and they’re not?”
-Gatewood Galbraith, “1977 NORML Formal – Does Decrim Really Work?”, Blacklisted News, pp. 278-279

“NORML reversed it’s position on S-1437 after a rank-and-file plenary resulted in the unanimous denunciation of the leadership’s endorsement of the bill.”
– HiLife magazine, Vol. 1 #1, 1978, p. 14

“Smoke-ins inspired and organized by Y.I.P. have increased in number and attendance since ’77. They’ve provided periodic reminders to the smoking segment of the electorate that its favorite recreational high is still illegal, and that “decriminalization” actually benefits dealers, narcs and dope lawyers and leaves tokers vulnerable to selective enforcement.”
– HiLife, Nov. 1979

There’s all this evidence of a split in the movement and all the above facts which prove that Decrim made things worse – not better – in most cases, and yet still the man who first advocated decrim will not admit that it might have been better to hold out for total equality with the coffee bean community:

“It’s only taken us nine years to say we wanted legal dope,” said NORML founder Keith Stroup in a moment of clarity. “nine years of being hypocrites to ourselves and the smugglers who bring in the dope we smoke.”
– Stone-Age, Spring 1979

“Decriminalizing the personal possession and use of marijuana by responsible adults was the right thing to do then and it is the right thing to do now,”
– NORML Executive Director Keith Stroup –

As the Yippie leader Dana Beal recently pointed out in a telephone interview: “We needed a plenary congress … and we got a corporation – NORML.”

In other words, we needed a movement that took everyone’s concerns into account rather than one that was run top-down. There is no concrete “proof” that a combination of hierarchy and support for decrim made the 1980’s suck so badly for cannabis activism, but it’s my educated guess, not totally unsupported by the facts.

We’re suffering from the same problem today. Few of the major Canadian cannabis leaders will look at all the facts and either debunk them or admit that support for decrim is not in the best interest of the movement. Their reputation is being called into question by the rank and file pot smokers as a result of this irrationality – in the same way the reputation of the leadership suffered as a result of US decrim. Even today’s NORML USA leadership is taking decrim more seriously as a threat than the Canadian activists are. My respect goes out to Allen St. Pierre for hearing the cries for equality and ignoring the pleas for incrementalism. Allen recently told this author that he had heard of people getting urine tested for SIX YEARS as a result of the “treatment option” found within the decrim laws – he now supports the “equality or nothing” position taken by the more radical US pot activists of the 1970’s.

Like the passing of the Canadian Controlled Drugs and Substances Act back in 1995, supporters of the government’s new policy will likely get front page attention while detractors will be buried in the back pages if they appear in the newspapers at all. For this reason, the next time they ask our community about decrim, we must all refuse to give it support. If we do not stand united for equality and zero punishment, we will never achieve it. We will be like the Jewish leadership in WW2, believing to the very end that our rulers were not planning our total destruction (or in our case, total assimilation) (71). We will be like the witches … still fighting for dignity and an end to the witch-hunt since 1401 and yet never really achieving it. (72)

So I write this as an appeal to the rank and file. Please put pressure on our leaders – in our movement and in our government – to revoke their support for decrim and try something different this time – “equality or nothing”. The leaders had no previous generation to learn from – we have no such excuse. Even if Canadian decrim was turned into the best decrim around (Boston-style decrim with no punishments for unpaid fines) it still sends the wrong message out to the world – the message that we are not yet ready for total equality and dignity.

Online vids on the subject:
The last time I did something on decrim for Pot TV:

The latest on decrim from Pot TV:

Dr. Keith Martin (Canada’s “Prince of Decrim”) on You Tube:


(11) ibid
(12) See also page 26:
(13) High Times editorial, Winter 1975, p. 5
(14) High Times, May 1976, p. 43
(16) HiLife, Vol. 1 #1, 1978, p. 14,
(18) -“In Malaysia and Singapore, a Mixed Drug Picture”, Steven Erlanger, New York Times, Dec. 15th, 1989 – reprinted in Potshot #15
(25) Ben Masel, personal communication
(29) “The City of New York Commission to Investigate Allegations of Police Corruption” (The Mollen Commission), July 1994
(36) – P. 8 of 34
(39) Legislative Options for Cannabis in Australia. McDonald, D., Moore, R., Norberry, J., Wardlaw, G. & Ballenden, N. National Drug Strategy Monograph Series, No. 26. Canberra: Department of Human Services and Health, 1994.
(41)[email protected]/msg114530.html
(42) Nol van Schaik, personal communication,
(43) Nol van Schaik, The Dutch Cannabis Connection, English Version, Wernard Bruining, 2004, pp. 101-115
(48) Paragraph 100, R. v. Malmo?Levine, [2003]
(52) “Bill to eliminate criminal record for marijuana possession” Vancouver Sun, 11/15/95 p. A1; “Convictions for pot possession untraceable under new bill” Edmonton Journal, 11/15/95 p. A3; “Dope stigma to ease – People caught in minor pot cases won’t have a traceable record” Winnipeg Free Press, 11/15/95 p. A1; “FEDS PUSHING SOFTER POT LAW” Toronto Sun, 11/15/1995 p. A1
(53) “Canadians busted for pot still face border block, lawyer says” Vancouver Sun, 11/16/95, p. B12
(56) P. 6 of 34 –
(57) Ibid, p. 3
(58) Ibid, p. 3-4
(62) “Legalizing marijuana not up in smoke” Nov. 4, 1997, Globe & Mail
(65) “Users off the hook”, June 18, 1995, Vancouver Province, p. A5
(68) Hedy Fry, Oct. 29, 2003, discussing Bill C-38 – rebroadcast on C-span Nov. 4, 2003: at 35:33
(70) -“Decriminalization is Dangerous” Cannabis Culture magazine, issue #35: