I have spent much of my legal career fighting crime, often in an admittedly futile effort to suppress the organized gang activity stemming from the cross-border marijuana trade in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest.
During my six-year tenure as a United States attorney for the Western District of Washington, I regularly worked with the RCMP and other Canadian law enforcement groups attempting to limit the massive loads of Canadian-grown marijuana heading south and the related flow of cocaine and guns heading north. My time as the U.S. attorney also included prosecuting Vancouver’s Marc Emery, who was sentenced to five years in U.S. federal prison for peddling marijuana seeds to every man, woman and child with a few bucks, a stamp and an envelope. If changing marijuana policy was Emery’s goal, he took the wrong path.
However, as Emery’s prosecutor and a former federal law enforcement official, I am not afraid to say publicly what many of my former colleagues know to be true: marijuana prohibition is dangerous, and should be overturned in Canada and the U.S. through the legislative process to protect public safety.
Governments on both sides of the border have failed to publicly acknowledge that criminal prohibition of marijuana — like that of alcohol — is a dismal and destructive failure. Widespread availability of marijuana on both sides of the border exists because violent international drug cartels, operating in cannabis-producing regions like British Columbia, reap billion-dollar revenues from the industry. With the resulting profits up for grabs to the most ruthless and violent, no measure of law enforcement can constrain this market.
Even with massive growth in anti-drug enforcement budgets over the last several decades, law enforcement has not intercepted anywhere near enough marijuana to suppress this industry. Arrests and seizures simply create an economic opportunity for new players to enter the market, with violence the tactic of choice to gain or maintain market share.
Brave agents and cops continue to risk their lives in a futile attempt to enforce misguided laws that do not reflect the realities of society. These same agents and cops — along with prosecutors, judges and jailers — are well aware we can’t win by arresting all those involved in the massive marijuana industry or by locking up pot smokers.
I suspect nothing good can come to anyone from frequent ingestion of marijuana smoke, but its addictive potential and health risks pale in comparison with other banned drugs such as heroin, cocaine or meth. In fact, most health experts see regular alcohol and tobacco use as being more dangerous than marijuana use.
I recently visited Vancouver to lecture in support of the Stop the Violence B.C. coalition. This group calls for marijuana taxation and regulation, and includes current and past members of law enforcement, public health experts and political figures, including four former B.C. attorneys-general. These leaders recognize that marijuana laws have not achieved their stated objectives and have instead set the table for organized crime and their criminal activities.
In light of the clear failure of marijuana prohibition to reduce the drug’s use or hinder organized crime, a completely new approach is needed. While some Canadians fear that the U.S. would take action if Canada reformed cannabis policies, the reality is that Canada has fallen behind many U.S. states in reforming marijuana laws. Fourteen U.S. states have already taken steps to decriminalize possession of personal use amounts of marijuana.
In California, for instance, possession of up to one ounce of marijuana has been decriminalized, with simple possession reduced from a misdemeanour to an infraction. Possession of less than 28.5 grams of cannabis is treated like a traffic ticket, punishable by a $100 fine.
Furthermore, U.S. elections in 2012 will see ballot initiatives aiming to tax and regulate marijuana in both Washington state and Colorado. This approach is not soft on crime. Rather, it seeks to protect public safety by waging economic war on the violent organized crime groups that are benefiting from marijuana prohibition. Specifically, it involves governments moving away from policies that encourage an increasingly violent and unregulated market towards policies that have public health and safety as the core objectives.
Cross-border cooperation will be essential. Criminal cartels propped up by marijuana prohibition have exported violence, guns and hard drugs along with their pot for far too long. Governments and law enforcement on both sides of the border should be discussing the best strategies to tax and regulate this market, reduce violence, and infiltrate and dismantle the cartels and gangs to ensure community safety. In other words, it’s time for politicians, cops, judges and jailers to publicly state their private convictions.
John McKay is a law professor at Seattle University and the former United States attorney in Seattle.
– Article from The Vancouver Sun.